I cracked open the shotgun and tipped the empty cartridges onto the gravel. The Chief Superintendent was still explaining the legal situation to me on the mobile phone tucked against my ear. I took a large sip from my Scotch and picked up two fresh cartridges from the garden table next to my lounger.
"Pull!" I said, and Winston let fly with two more clay pigeons. There was a cry of pain from the phone as the shotgun went off and the pigeons disintegrated in mid air.
"Miss Croft," said the Chief Superintendent. "Lara. Please could you stop doing that? You nearly perforated my eardrum."
"I'm sorry, Chief Superintendent," I said. "There's so very little to do around here now that you've got me under house arrest, and I'm very bored."
"It's not my fault that they're trying to get you extradited."
"So to sum up," I said, emptying the shotgun again. "I can't have my passport or driving license. I'm stuck here. And when you said you were a great friend of my father's, and that should I ever need anything I should call you - you were being a bit economical with the verité."
"But Lara ... you're wanted for suspected manslaughter, theft, vandalism and the killing of endangered species in three different countries. You only just escaped a fatwa."
"So much for the old boy's network," I said. "Pull!"
There was a muttered obscenity from the phone as I fired. "Look, Lara. You're supposed to be a scholar. You've got access to the Net, a huge library ...couldn't you do some quiet research until we hear from the Home Secretary? There's no real use in ringing me up every day is there?"
I sighed. "Talk to you tomorrow, Chief Superintendent," I said, and put down the phone. "Winston. Get me some more Scotch."
I reloaded the shotgun and took out one of the windows on the first floor of the Croft mansion. Winston flinched and then carried on his way.
I had difficulty sleeping as usual. The Croft mansion generally smells of smoke, especially my room. The problem with having chimneys riddled with secret passages is that it can ruin the updraft, and since the old chimney sweep had died I'd been forced to try and keep them clean myself. I kept resolving to scrap the real fire in my room and to put in gas, but I guess I'm an old romantic.
It seemed like about four in the morning and I couldn't tell if I was really asleep and dreaming about being awake. A movement in the room attracted my attention and then there was a figure seated in the armchair in front of the fire.
"How are you, darling?" said the figure.
I sat up in bed. "Daddy," I said.
"Been getting into trouble I see," said Father. "I managed to stay out of trouble at your age."
"I seem to remember you taking advantage of the Japanese invasion of China to dig a few things up," I said. "Plus, there's your scrapes with the Nazis."
"Touché," he said, lighting his pipe.
"Why are you here, Daddy?" I got out of bed and pulled on a dressing gown. Of course I knew it must be some sort of dream. Since I'd bought the mansion from him, he hadn't been back to the UK.
"Just wanted to remind you about something, darling. Come and sit here by my feet."
"You look well," I said.
Father puffed and smiled. "So do you, Lara." He planted a kiss on my forehead. The smell of tobacco and tweed and old-fashioned aftershave made my eyes sting a little.
"So?" I said, taking his hand.
"The grounds," he said, thoughtfully. "I never really finished my survey, did I?"
I remembered the exploratory sections we'd dug on the back lawn before the final term at the finishing school. I'd been an avid little girl, breathless with excitement. It was like digging for treasure.
I smiled and kissed his fingers. "I'll have a look," I promised. "After all, I'm not going anywhere."
It was two days later. I rolled over in bed and picked up the phone. "Two teas, two sets of toast and the Times please Winston," I said, sleepily. I left Joe the glazier asleep and set the bath running.
Joe had come to mend the windows that I'd shot. "Hello, darlin'," he had called from his ladder. He was scraping the old putty from the frame of the first floor window.
"Morning," I said uncertainly. I couldn't quite shake the idea that it was odd to be addressed in a familiar fashion by tradespersons. "I don't suppose you could clean out my chimney could you?"
"What ... boyfriend away?" said Joe, winking and laughing uproariously.
"Was that some sort of sexual innuendo?" I said.
Joe's face fell. "Sorry, Miss. Just being flippant."
I went to the bottom of the ladder and looked up at his naked torso. "I don't mind," I said mildly. "As it happens I am a bit bored."
At breakfast we were joined by my colleague, Dr. Stella Oldfield.
"Sleep well?" I said, accepting another of Winston's cups of tea.
"OK," said Stella. "Smells of smoke a bit in the guest room. And what about you two?"
Joe chuckled and helped himself to a pile of fried food from the silverware on the sideboard. "We didn't get much sleep," he said.
Stella and I exchanged glances. Joe obviously felt the need to brag about the obvious to convince himself he wasn't dreaming.
"I don't know how you manage to eat all that," said Stella. "I only have to look at something fatty and I put on pounds." She was still in that stage of her mid-twenties where one is convinced that men give a stuff about a bit of extra flesh.
"So ... we'll start the geophysics today, shall we?" I said.
"I had a look at your father's notes and the old maps and I think I know roughly where'd we lay down some exploratory trenches."
"You can help with the digging if you like," I said to Joe.
"Hey!" said Joe. "This is supposed to be a holiday, isn't it?"
"We have a mechanical digger ..." I said.
Joe's face lit up. "A digger? I've always wanted to have a go on one of those."
"Typical boy," I said.
We were gathered around Stella's laptop on the back lawn looking at the geophysics survey.
"It's below the level of your father's excavations," said Stella.
I restrained my excitement. "What is it?" I asked. "A large rock formation? A segment of stone floor?"
"It's shaped like a bomb," said Joe. "Are you sure it's not something from World War II?"
Winston cleared his throat. "There was an army training school here during the war, Miss," he said.
"But look at the scale," said Stella.
"Exactly," I said. "This is more the size of a bomber than a bomb."
"Maybe it's a large church," said Stella.
By late afternoon we'd pegged out the site and started on the trenches. Joe was in hog heaven at the controls of the mechanical digger.
"Be careful!" shouted Stella as he dug the scoop into the earth. "For Christ's sake."
"I am," he shouted back. "I don't want to be blown sky high, do I?"
"We need a professional," said Stella to me, sotto voce.
"Leave the boy alone," I said. Joe amused me.
"This isn't one of your blow-it-up-with-a-couple-of-sticks-of-dynamite jobs. This is England, not some third world country. Archaeology matters."
"OK," I said. "Let me take over from him for a while."
Stella looked at me. "Great," she said.
Trench C had ceased to look like a trench any more after I passed the six-foot mark and sides began to collapse. Stella had gone inside for a lie down after shouting at me about making a bomb crater, not a dig. Joe was sunbathing and drinking beer. He at least had a sense of fun. The top of the digger was almost below ground level and I was taking a warm satisfaction at having destroyed part of the grounds when the scoop hit something solid. The digger engine strained and there was a weird vibration. I switched off the motor, but the vibration continued.
"What the hell is that?" said Joe, scrambling to his feet. His beer can tipped over and the beer soaked into the lawn. Soil was being jiggled from the sides of my new crater, and settling around the tracks of the digger.
"Whoops," I said, and prepared to leap clear. At that moment the ground beneath gave way and I and the digger fell into the darkness. I screamed.
When I came round I was coughing and there was a tremendous pain in my leg. Earth was still trickling down from the hole about six feet about my head, but the light was not sufficient for me to see where I was. I was still seated in the digger, but both it and my leg were tilted at an unnatural angle. The dashboard lights were still on, and so I flicked the headlight switch.
The beams revealed dust motes, and then some kind of room or corridor stretching away from me. I looked behind, and saw a similar view, only less well lit.
"Lara!" Joe's head appeared in the gap above and more earth showered down. "Are you all right?"
"Keep away from the edge," I said. "You'll fall in. Go and get the others, and get some ropes or something."
"Are you OK?"
"I think I broke my leg. "
Joe let out a stream of expletives. More earth showered onto my head.
"Oh, go and get on with it man," I said, wiping soil from my face. "Stop dithering. And get my backpack and the shotgun from Winston while you're at it."
I peered into the gloom. My eyes were getting used to the darkness. The walls of the corridor looked artificial. It was hard to say what they were made of, but they had a surface that suggested a relief of patterns. They twinkled slightly.
Using both my hands, I tried to move my leg. It was broken, but not dislocated.
Then I heard a dull clunk. It was coming from the corridor in front of me, a long way away in the darkness. There was a second clunk, and then a third. The floor vibrated slightly. The clunks turned into footsteps, getting nearer.
I looked around for a weapon, a spade, anything.
"Joe!" I called. "Anyone?"
I could now see a shape in the darkness. It was about man height and humanoid. It sounded heavy and its skin glittered like silver. There was a sound of breathing.
"It was a Cyberman," said Joe, some time later.
"It looks more like a Mycenaean funerary mask to me," said Stella. She was still very pale.
"How does that feel, Miss?" said Winston, wrapping the last piece of plaster of Paris around my leg.
"Pass me the crutches," I said. I'd broken my leg so many times that we had the crutches on permanent loan from the local Cottage Hospital.
I'd been stuck down in the tunnel with the "Cyberman" clunking towards me. I'd looked down at the digger controls - there was still power.
"Come on," I said, turning the ignition key. The engine turned over but didn't start. I tried again two or three times before the "Cyberman" reached me.
The "Cyberman" stood in front of the digger scoop looking up at me. I thought I could see movement behind the eye slots of its silver mask. Its metal body ticked like a cooling radiator and there was the whine of a servo as it turned his head. It smelt like a kicked-in television.
I reached down for the controls. The digger jerked, as the scoop rose and caught the "Cyberman" under the chin. Its head became wedged between the spikes on the lip of the scoop and it was lifted off the ground. The legs kicked wildly and I could see it trying to gain a purchase with its hands. There was a harsh metallic coughing sound and some metallic screaming noises. The neck was obviously not designed to carry the weight of the body. The head flew free and landed in my lap.
"See," said Joe, turning the head in the sunlight. "Metal sticky-out-bits on each side of the head. Just like those silver hoses on Cybermen."
"Who needs a Glitter Gun?" I said.
"Thank God I remembered to pack a torch for a change," I said. I'd gotten heartily sick of having to use emergency flares just to see where I was going. I'd strapped the Maglight to the end of the shotgun with masking tape, and was hobbling along on my crutches with the gun under one arm.
"We shouldn't be doing this," said Stella from above our heads.
"You're right," I said. "Stay up there."
"She's got a point," said Joe, one step behind me.
"Go back if you like," I said, "although it wouldn't be very gallant of you."
"Er ... right," said Joe.
The corridor didn't seem quite as big by torchlight. It curved slightly and I could see the end. The "Cyberman" must have been standing there in the darkness. I had no idea what had set it off. Maybe it had perceived a digger crashing through the roof as some sort of threat.
"This is like below decks on a cross-channel ferry," said Joe. "Lots of ducting embedded in the walls."
"Maybe the Herald of Free Enterprise sailed into the Bermuda Triangle and ended up in my lawn," I said.
"Now you're being silly," said Joe.
We reached the end of the corridor and suddenly it looked more like a door than a wall.
"Interesting," I said, playing the torchlight over the surface.
"Pictures," said Joe, glancing over his shoulder.
"It's not my area, but that looks like Linear B to me."
"Is that a computer language?"
"Similar," I said, "but used by the forerunners of the Ancient Greeks."
"They had computers?"
"After Atlantis nothing surprises me much any more," I said.
"Wow," said Joe. "You mean you've been to the States?"
Fortunately at that moment there was one of those "servo" sounds. The door in front of us was opening. I pointed the shotgun through the opening at groin level in case another "Cyberman" decided to grace us with its presence. Not they looked particularly vulnerable at the groin level ... it was a girl thing. Besides, you try aiming a Smith and Weston 12 gauge double-barreled shotgun on crutches. Beyond there was a flickering of light like a faulty fluorescent tube.
"Looks like the bridge on the Nostromo," I said. "Cluttered, bad lighting, no pastels."
The flickering wasn't confined to the general lighting. Coloured indicators and panels were coming to life all around the room. Presumably there are a limited number of ways to design a flight deck, and this looked just like a flight deck, or perhaps a ship's bridge. My tense trigger finger was threatening to discharge the shotgun at any second. I was expecting crew and I wasn't expecting a welcome.
"It's is a spacecraft, isn't it?" whispered Joe.
"Unless it's an underground theme pub," I said.
At that moment a tall glistening piece of apparatus in the corner of the room decided to do something. I saw the movement and swung round on a crutch. It wasn't a successful manoeuvre; I stumbled and one barrel of the gun went off. There was a green burst from the glittering machine - I was reminded of a force field - and then a red ray scanned me from head to foot. It hesitated at my injured leg and there was a buzzing, like "bit" language rendered in light, as information was relayed back to the machine.
"What should we do?" said Joe.
"You should run as fast as possible back to the surface," I said.
"It's your life."
A small chunk of metal detached itself from the glittering machine and floated towards me. I debated discharging the remaining shotgun barrel, but that seemed pointless. The floating thing started to nudge my shoulder.
"Shall I hit it?" said Joe.
"Go on then," I said.
Joe threw a haymaker, there was a clang and Joe was left nursing his hand. The floating thing still pushed me insistently in the direction of the glittering machine.
"It's like bloody Lassie," I said.
"Lassie" was getting annoyed. A panel in its surface sprang open and a gauntlet closed on my forearm. I whacked the gauntlet with the butt of the shotgun. "Lassie" responded by injecting something into my skin. I lost the will to struggle and let myself by dragged towards the glittering machine. Joe tried to follow, shouting, but the machines had erected a wall of light that kept him back. I didn't care much.
The glittering machine gathered me into its metallic arms and began to remove my clothing with laser knifes. A flexible tube was inserted into my throat before I could cry out.
3. My Breitling altimeter wristwatch
I lost my senses for a while. I ceased to register what was happening. The strongest impression I have was of the kind of hot light that one gets in a sunbed. There was nothing painful, not even the intrusive probes.
Whatever moonjuice "Lassie" had dosed me with was good stuff; I was relaxed all over.
I came to and the machine released me. I could stand. I rested my weight on my injured leg. There was no discomfort. It was as if I had never been hurt. This shock was enough to make me feel faint.
The glittering machine has dressed me in a shiny semi-transparent catsuit affair. I felt like Barbarella.
"Lassie" appeared. It held out my shotgun, my boots, my wristwatch, my rucksack and my clothes, all repaired. I looked at the neat pile of clothing with faint disbelief. There were no signs of mending - they were perfect, and clean.
"Quite the mother's little helper," I said to the glittering machine, stuffing the clothes into the rucksack and strapping my wristwatch on over the sleeve of the catsuit. "I'll change back into my things later, if that's OK with you. Unless we're going to some sort of party ... "
I became aware of a noise; it was Joe shouting at me, muffled by the wall of green light. I gave him a thumbs-up and he smote his forehead in a mime of exasperation. Meanwhile "Lassie" buzzed up again and handed me a see-through tube containing what looked like blocks of clear blue soap.
"Thanks," I said, dryly.
The wall of green light dropped and Joe rushed forward. "Lara!"
"What did it do?"
"Fixed my leg."
"No shit ..."
Joe gave me a quick kiss and stepped back, looking me up and down.
"Is it see-through?" I asked, nodding down at my new outfit.
"Why is it that at moments of high danger men think that it's appropriate to back me into a corner and look at my breasts?"
Joe blushed even more.
"I want Stella in here," I said. "I want her to look at that Linear B. I'm beginning to think that I took the head off that Cyberman rather prematurely. I guess a lifetime of watching video nasties has made me a bit too prone to the use of unnecessary violence."
"It's not Linear B," said Stella, peering in the beam of the Maglight. "Not entirely. "Some of it looks more like Linear A."
"So - completely indecipherable," I said.
"It's been added onto the surface - painted on. I think it's graffiti," said Joe.
"Looks like we're not the first visitors."
"These three symbols," said Stella, pointing. "They're probably Linear B. A-RE-JA."
"It's been postulated to be a name. Of a deity. Perhaps an ancient forerunner of Ares."
"I'm an Aries," said Joe.
"No," said Stella, patiently. "A-R-E-S. The Romans called him Mars."
"The God of War," said Joe.
"Exactly. Very good."
I cleared my throat. "Anything else?"
"DA-PU-RI-TO-JO," read Stella. "That could mean something like a maze or a labyrinth."
"And there's these five symbols. DI-PI-SI-JO-I. This is quite famous."
"The Thirsty Ones," I said.
"Very good, Dr. Croft. Granville-Smith has suggested that this is a reference to the Dead coming to drink at a blood-filled trench. As in the Odyssey."
I pondered. The mention of gods of war and the dead wasn't filling me with confidence. "Let's get out of here and regroup."
"We can have a nice cup of tea and you can change out of your disco outfit," said Stella.
"But only if you want to," said Joe.
"Funny," I said.
Sometimes you just have to go for it. Was I confident when I entered the Temple of Xian? Not particularly, given the legends about the tomb of the First Emperor of China. The legends spoke of booby traps, self-firing bows and arrows, rivers of toxic mercury. I'd gone in anyway, and for what? The Dagger of Xian was just a bauble. They say that some people's brains have a lower level of serotonin (or is it endorphin?) that makes them eternally on the hunt for an adrenal fix. "Head the ball types" as Joe would have put it. The Dagger of Xian and the fragments of the Atlantean Scion and the mounted T. Rex head and the rest. Any of them would have brought me instant fame, but they resided in a secret room in the mansion, barely looked at by me. I was like a child that enjoyed opening new toys, but then I never played with them again. I made a mental note "Must get rid of Joe" as we walked back down the corridor to the digger and the hole in the roof. We'd had our fun.
I've thought about what happened next and I guess that the "spaceship", having already identified me as the "designated pilot", decided that it was time to leave. Joe and I were giving Stella a bunk up at the hole in the roof, with Winston pulling ineffectually from above. Stella had just scrambled back up to crater level when the "spacecraft" came to life.
I don't know if you've ever experienced an earthquake, but sometimes the ground moves suddenly under your feet like the back of a dragon. I fell, Joe fell, the digger shifted and Stella screamed. I crashed onto my hip but my "disco outfit" somehow absorbed the shock. There was a roaring sound.
I recovered first. "Stella!" I shouted. "Winston! Get out of the crater or get down here!" I had a hunch what was going to happen. I scrambled to my feet and jumped for the lip of the hole. I caught the edge with my fingertips and pulled myself up into the open air. Stella and Winston were wide-eyed with terror clutching onto each other like the Babes in the Wood. I had just got to my feet when the earth below us rose thirty feet into the air. The sudden acceleration forced me to my knees.
"Get over here!" I shouted, holding out my hand to Stella. "Quickly."
I had just caught hold of her fingers when the ground tilted through sixty degrees. I could see the enormous gash in the lawn that we had left behind. A shower of earth and plants rained down and began to splatter onto the glass roof of the swimming pool as we drifted sideways over the mansion, still rising.
I was hanging onto the lip of the hole with one hand and Stella with the other. Winston had no such purchase. With a thin cry he fell through the glass roof into the chlorinated water below, the pieces of his tea set splashing around him. We rose further, and the tilt of the "ground" evened out.
"Now!" I shouted and pulled Stella and myself into the hole. We fell onto the pile of loose earth in the corridor.
The three of us looked at each other but anything we might have said was drowned by a roar. There was a massive acceleration upward that pinned us to the floor. The wind howled in through the hole in the roof and filled the corridor with flying earth. Stella screamed (again). I wished that she wouldn't. I tend to save my screaming for when falling from a great height. Maybe she had a point.
I struggled to bring my wristwatch to a position where I could see it. My arm was very heavy and I was having difficulty drawing a breath. The watch had been custom made by Breitling for me in a moment of extravagance. It contained an altimeter and a device for reading barometric pressure. It was particularly useful for diving and mountain climbing, but I'd never envisaged this particular situation.
The pressure was dropping - 900 millibars, 880, 860 - and our altitude was increasing - 1 km, 3, 5. I seemed to recall that the watch measured up to 20 km, and was just wondering at what height a person would pass out due to lack of oxygen, when I passed out due to lack of oxygen.
4. Father again
When I came to, "Lassie" had saved the day. The hole in the roof was a hatch, and "Lassie" had closed it.
Then it had applied a couple of the blocks of "clear blue soap" to Joe and Stella, who had been haemorrhaging. It appeared that the glittering machine had made the most of its intimate session with me, and had coded the blue soap accordingly. Joe and Stella were soon repaired.
Something entirely different had happened to me during the emergency. I reached up to wipe my mouth - my face was itching - and encountered something hard. I struggled to a sitting position, spluttering, and tried to remove whatever it was from my face. The disco outfit had grown a mask, presumably after sensing my physiological response to low pressure, and was supplying me with 100 oxygen. I was experiencing a feeling of intense benevolence. I must be tripping, I thought. Too unreal. I'd have to explain to the glittering machine about the virtues of a nitrogen-oxygen mix.
As for the others - unfortunately the blue soap didn't contain Valium, otherwise it would have been perfect. Stella was screaming incoherently and seemed to be demanding an explanation. She hit Joe on the biceps so that he paused in his chosen task of rubbing his stubble and doing the thousand yard stare.
I shouted at Stella, but my voice was muffled. I started swearing and tried to get my fingers around the edge of the mask, but I couldn't find where it ended and my skin began. I leapt to my feet and - soaring into the air - banged my head on the ceiling. I was suddenly a lot lighter.
Fortunately for my state of mind at that moment the mask chose to retract itself into the collar of the disco outfit. I landed gently on my feet and yelled "Stella! Shut up!" It made me feel better, at any rate.
"Thank goodness I've got my bag," said Stella, retrieving a tissue to scrub at the dried blood under her nose.
"Thank goodness," I said.
"You haven't got a fag by any chance?" said Joe.
"You haven't got your portable computer by any chance?" I said.
"Oh I get it," said Joe. "You're going to interface the computer with the spacecraft like in Independence
Day and fly us home."
"I think the designers of this ship had more sense than to buy their operating system from Acorn," I said.
"No - I want the geophysics survey."
"Here," said Stella, handing me the computer. "The password is 'bunnikins'. Don't ask."
As I had recalled, the ship was the size of a church. "So what's in the rest of it?" I asked, shutting the computer. "I think we need to know."
At the other end of the corridor was another door. Behind the door was what looked like a lift.
"You two go back to the flight deck and see what you can see. A map, a window, a radio, a steering wheel, anything."
"I'm coming with you," said Joe, putting his hands on his hips in an assertive way.
"Is that you, John Wayne?" I said, adopting a gunfighter's stance and a cornpoke American accent. "Look, Joe - just stay with Stella ... "
"... or I'll shoot you in the leg and feed you to that machine that stitched me up."
The lift behaved like a lift. The doors shut, the lift descended, I floated a few inches off the ground, the lift stopped, I settled back to the floor, the doors opened. The silence and the low gravity made it impossible to tell how far or fast we'd gone. I wondered if the mask would snap back on - for all I knew below decks was airless - but it didn't.
I stepped out into the study of the Croft mansion. I'm not prone to attacks of the vapours, but the sight of my father standing in front of a roaring fire with his pipe in one hand and a glass of Johnnie Walker Red Label in the other made my head swim.
"Afternoon, darling," said my father with a faint smile.
I looked at him and the room. The study was not a complete room, but had one side missing like the set of a film. Instead of the study wall there was a green light force field, and beyond that was a tall shape that I didn't recognise.
"I'll ... have a Scotch." I stepped forward and touched one of the leather armchairs. It felt solid and smelt real. I sat down in it and, leaning the shotgun against the side, put my feet up on a delicate oriental coffee table.
Father glanced at my feet, and brought over a glass. "I'm not your real father you know," he said.
"There's no need for that sort of language," he said mildly, "and do you have to put your feet on that? It's a priceless antique."
"Spookily realistic," I said, sipping my Scotch. "What is it about you expat types and Johnnie Walker? It's crap."
Father clicked his teeth in annoyance and started to bang his pipe out over the fire.
"So - let me guess," I said. "You've been cooked up by some sort of mechanism on this ship using my memories."
"That's a rather clever deduction," said Father, amused. He twinkled at me as he fumbled fresh tobacco out of its tin.
"You got me to dig you up with the Banquo act, and now you're going to tell me why."
"Bravo! They certainly don't breeds idiots in the Croft family."
"Still the same patronising old bastard then?"
"Oh ... I'm not real, as I said. Just an amalgam of your old memories. And your old prejudices."
I glowered at him and drained my glass. "Touché," I said.
"The thing is this," he said, seating himself and lighting his pipe. "We've received a distress call. An automated distress call, but a distress call none-the-less."
"And 'we' are?"
"Oh ... well there's no point in giving you the real name. You always were terrible at Greats."
"How about ... the Olympians? That's as good a name as any."
"As in Mount Olympus? The Olympian gods."
Father gazed at me for a few seconds. "Oh, I see," he said eventually. "Well I suppose so."
"Let me fill in the gaps," I said. "The Olympians ... ancient spacefaring race, bla bla bla, came a cropper millennia ago, bla bla bla, racial memories translated into mythology, bla bla bla ..."
"I think that you've been reading too much H.P.Lovecraft," said Father.
"Now you're just straining for realism. You should have said - watching too much X-Files."
"Touché," said Father. "But you're correct about the Olympians, in broad outline. Care for some more of my ghastly Scotch?" The Scotch flowed like treacle in the low gravity.
"So you must have come across the Atlanteans?"
Father laughed. He nodded at the shape beyond the force field. "That's one of Natla's specimens through there. There were originally two, but one got loose and was eventually killed by the natives. We were taking the other home for analysis, but ..."
I swiveled around and gazed at the shape, the hairs on my neck stirring. "Is it dead?"
"What's the word?" Father puffed on his pipe. "Stasis, I think. Good Greek word. That's unless one of your travelling companions on the bridge presses the wrong button."
I put a hand on my shotgun. "Hide like a rhinoceros," continued Father. "That wouldn't even slow it down. Need an elephant gun I should think."
"Thanks," I said.
"Back to the matter at hand. You can't get to Mars in one go. We need to stop off for fuel."
"I'm going to Mars?"
"Olympus Mons, to be precise. Amusing coincidence, isn't it?"
"I'd be very surprised if it was."
"Well, you're right of course, but that's another story."
"And we need to refuel. So where are we refueling, exactly?"
Father drew his breath in over his teeth and turned to gaze into the fire. "Now that's the tricky part," he said.
"By tricky, you mean dangerous."
"Precisely," said Father. He sighed. "Which is why you're the best person for the job. Lucky we were in your neck of the woods."
"Yes ... actually."
"And what if I don't want to go to Mars?"
"No choice now, my girl. Barely had enough fuel to take off."
"But presumably there's enough to land?"
"So land us back on Earth."
Father poked at his pipe with a matchstick. "Well, I am. Sort of," he said.
I put down my whiskey glass and picked up my shotgun. "You're going to explain, no doubt," I said.
"What's a good name for where we're going?" he said, looking at the gun with amusement. "Something suitably Lovecraftian. How about - ur-Earth."
"Yes. Earth's doppelganger, if you like. On the exactly opposite side of the sun. Earth's evil twin."
"Evil? Since when did you start using words like evil ...?"
I was hoping for more information, but unfortunately at that moment Father disappeared. The study disappeared, my Scotch disappeared and the chair I was sitting on disappeared, sending me floating to the floor. As I scrabbled around trying to get my bearings in the semi-darkness, I noticed that the green force field had disappeared as well.
I lay very still, trying not to breathe. Something snorted and then bellowed in the darkness. I winced. The shape stepped into a patch of light. It was about ten feet tall with the torso of a man and the head of a bull, and had the freshly flayed complexion that was the trademark of all of Natla's creations.
Somebody must have pressed the wrong button.
I wondered if the Minotaur responded to movement like a bull. It seemed fortunate that I wasn't wearing red. Lying flat on one's belly is not the best position to start sprinting from, but I was reluctant to move a muscle. I turned my head very slowly and squinted at the lift door behind me. It was shut, and it seemed unlikely that the creature would allow me to wait for the lift to return.
The Minotaur was drawing long breaths in through its nostrils. It stopped hunting to and fro and looked directly at me, its nostrils flaring. It could smell me, despite the fact that it was thirty feet away and there was no breeze. It began to paw the ground and snort. I could feel the movement through the deck.
Despite the low gravity it was a heavy beast.
I could sense that it was going to charge and I didn't fancy being trampled beneath those huge hooves, so I got very slowly to my feet.
"Easy, big boy ..." I murmured, taking a step backwards. The shotgun was lying near my left foot, and I
tried to reach down for it without talking my eyes off the Minotaur.
He didn't like the look of what I was doing. Throwing his head back he bellowed. It was ear splitting.
Then he put down his head and charged.
I grabbed up the shotgun and taking aim, fired. If I hit him, he didn't notice. Father had been right. The Minotaur was on me almost before I had recovered from the recoil. I did a sideways somersault and felt one horn graze my foot. I hit the floor and did a twisting roll so that I ended up facing him.
I'd been hoping that his inertia would cause him to skid, or to have difficulty stopping, but it appeared that having two legs instead of four gave him better control and a smaller turning circle than a bull. He was already charging again as I faced him. I didn't have time to move so I ducked. His snout passed above me and I tried to head butt him in the stomach. Unfortunately for me his six-pack might as well have been a brick wall. It was like being smacked over the head with a bat. My teeth and neck were jarred and I was dazed. I fell to the ground stunned.
His hooves were crashing down each side of me. I squirmed and writhed to avoid being stood on, hardly able to see. I seem to remember him standing still and bellowing. One hand came down and pinned me by my neck to the floor. I could see him pulling back his head prior to skewering me through the chest.
I found myself with a good view of his lower torso. He was naked and rather frighteningly endowed.
"Let's hope bullock bollocks aren't armour-plated," I thought and kicked him as hard as I could in the balls.
I'm not entirely sure what a stuck pig squealing sounds like, but the Minotaur made a similar noise and limped away with its fingers clamped over its wedding tackle.
I stood up and ran balletically for the lift. "Father," I yelled, hunting around in my pack for more shotgun shells. "Where are you? Turn the bloody force field back on." I stood in front of the lift doors but they didn't open. There was no lift button to press. Maybe the cretins on the flight deck had turned the lift off as well.
The Minotaur was quiet on the other side of the room, but I could see as the seconds passed that it was recovering. I had a hunch that it would be - as our American friends would put it - "pissed". I looked around quickly, but there was no place to climb up out of its reach, no other exit, and no obvious place to hide.
"How the hell did Theseus manage to kill off your mate with a bronze sword?" I said.
I suddenly remembered something I had seen on a Minoan frieze. It showed a young girl faced with a bull.
As it charged she jumped up, somersaulted and ended up balanced in its horns like a vaulter, a hand on each horn. Vaulting I could do. Vaulting onto a twin set of parallel bars ten feet off the ground and travelling towards me at speed - well, I'd give it a go. AAlthough what I'd do when I got there I wasn't sure.
I slung my shotgun over my shoulder and did my Travis Bickle impression, my palms upwards and my fingers gesturing towards myself. "You looking at me?" I said.
The Minotaur had stopped limping. It was very quiet and it stared at me with its red eyes. It's foolish to anthropomorphise animals, but he was only half animal. He looked half-insane with rage, that was for sure.
"You looking at me?" I put my thumbs in my ears, waggled my fingers and stuck out my tongue.
I'll swear he beat his chest and made a Tarzan noise. Then he charged.
I bent my knees and jumped. If it had been ordinary gravity I probably would have impaled though my back as I somersaulted in mid-air. I made a perfect landing, although the horns were almost too big and smooth for me to get my fingers on. I immediately swapped hands over so that I was facing backwards.
Finally I bent my body and wrapped my thighs around his thick bull neck. It felt a bit like my Harley.
The Minotaur stood still, roaring and tried to punch me in the face. I managed to fend off his fist by wrenching his head around so that his horns got in the way, but it took all my strength. I wasn't going to be able to parry him for much longer. There was no chance of breaking his neck or wrestling him to the ground.
I acted quickly. Taking my shotgun in one hand and pulling back his snout by hooking my fingers in his nostrils, I shoved the barrel down his throat. The Minotaur, torn between reacting first to the pain in his snout and then to the choking sensation in his throat, forgot to hit me. I pulled the trigger. There was a muffled squelchy explosion. Fortunately his hide was tough enough to prevent me shooting myself through his neck.
"That was excellent," said Father, clapping. The study reappeared and the body of the Minotaur disappeared. "What an incredible woman you are."
I was tempted to load up and shoot him, but I opted for a dignified silence.
"The Minotaur was quite a good correlation from your memories, wasn't it?"
I wearily resumed my place with my feet on the coffee table. "Can you read my mind at the moment?" I said.
"Actually, no. The medical unit upstairs got everything when it patched you up."
"How did you manage to recreate my father for that first visit during the night?"
"Oh, from first hand observation over the decades."
The thought of my real father pottering innocently around the grounds made me feel nostalgic. "I thought you were being nicer than I remembered," I said, attempting to wipe my nose on the sleeve of the disco outfit.
"It was necessary to test you, you know," said Father. "It's a pity we have to go to ur-Earth at all. Whatever tries to stop you will be created from within you. There'll only be a few hundred yards between where we touch down and the fuel. If we're lucky it will a featureless plain."
"And what am I looking for?"
Father went over to the bookcase and took out a doughnut shape stone. It had an Art Deco-like design around the rim, in terracotta red. "Just one of these will do. More is better. There should be a pile of them, or a box, or a stack on a stick ... or something."
"How many millennia is it since you're been to ur-Earth?"
"Irrelevant. It was the same then as it is now. A dusty ball, scoured flat, with no sea. Earth is a living being. ur-Earth is like a senile old man, but with malevolent intentions."
"No, I was being literal," said Father, handing me some objects. "Here's a map and compass. Same type of iron planetary core and all that."
The map showed a straight line drawn out from the side of the ship in an easterly direction, ending in a cross. There were no other features.
"Amusing," I said.
"Press the stud on the compass," said Father. As I did, a spot of light appeared within the outline of the ship. "That's you. Just don't lose the map."
Father stayed below whilst I went up to tear a strip off Joe and Stella.
"But we didn't press any buttons!" protested Stella. "And this screen came on all by itself."
"We thought that if we didn't have a bastard clue what we were doing, we'd better leave well alone," said Joe.
The screen showed space, stars, that sort of thing. Stella and Joe were open mouthed with admiration with what they said was the beauty of the view, but I felt as if I'd seen better at the movies. The only emotion I felt was apprehension.
Gradually a black disk became visible in the star field. I was expecting night and day, a terminator, maybe clouds, but this body only seemed to absorb light. Ur-Earth.
"Are we on the dark side of the sun, or what?" said Joe, puzzled.
"That'll be it," I said.
"There is no dark side of the sun," said Stella.
"Are you sure?" I said.
The blackness was growing. We seemed to be approaching very fast, so I pretended that I was watching a video game. The increased gravity I could feel was just my fatigue and the faint trembling in the superstructure was just the video game equivalent of cinema quality sound effects.
Stella and Joe clutched at each other.
"Shouldn't we be at a correct injection angle or whatever it's called?" said Stella.
"Won't we burn up?" said Joe.
"We'll be perfectly all right," I said, as convincingly as I could manage. "I had a chat with the ship while I was downstairs and it told me so."
They didn't look reassured.
Sensibly a hatch that lead to a stairway to the ground was provided for me.
"Stay here," I said. "I'll be back directly. I've got a map to the fuel dump." I could tell they were dying for an explanation, but I didn't let them ask. They were wigged out by the space thing as it was, without mentioning Mars or ur-Earth. "Don't let anyone but me back in."
"Like who?" said Joe.
"Nobody but me," I said, glaring at him and daring him to answer back. He didn't, so I guess I scared him.
I wasn't sure what I was expecting when I started descending the stairway and got my first look at ur-Earth. The air was breathable and there was no breeze. The temperature was pleasantly warm and all I could see was dry brown earth stretching in every direction. The flatness of the landscape and the featurelessness of the sky was disorientating. The only reassuringly normal thing was the sun, which was high.
I stepped onto the earth. The staircase retracted behind me and the hatch clunked shut. Just me and a giant field.
I looked at the map. My light dot was outside the ship and I was facing in the right direction. I shaded my eyes and looked into the middle distance. I could just see was might have been a pile of stones.
"Put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye," I said and took a few steps away from the ship, my shotgun held at the ready. Frankly I could have done with some heavy ordinance, like a rocket launcher, for example.
Suddenly there was a shimmering in front of me. A large building was appearing, rather Edwardian in appearance. It was several stories high, with a large front door. Ornamental gardens were materialising from the flat earth, shrubs, gravel walkways, a large area of topiary like a maze, a fountain with a fish statue on the top. A wooden obstacle course. A large surrounding wall with a tall iron gateway, half open.
"Father," I said. "This had better not be you again."
A familiar figure stepped out of the gateway, her long braided ponytail swinging. She was wearing khaki shorts and desert boots, as well as a green leotard affair that was too tight for her large breasts, and she was brandishing two Uzi 9mm submachine guns.
"Welcome to my humble home," she said.
I got off one shot before she opened up. I'd assumed that the disco outfit was bullet proof, but it wasn't.
Something crashed into my chest and threw me backwards. I looked down, totally numb. My torso was ripped and full of bullet holes, some starting to seep blood.
I'd always been a better shot with a Uzi 9mm, I thought.
6.Evil Robot Ted
Wherever those Uzi bullets went, it was not my heart or my brain. Lungs, kidneys, gut, spine, liver - you name it - but nothing that instantly rendered me totally dead. Somehow I reached over my shoulder into my backpack and found the tube full of blue soap that "Lassie" had given me with my fingertips. I don't know how I got the top off and I don't know how I fumbled out a lump of soap. The next thing that I remember was starting up at a blue English sky, dotted with little fluffy clouds.
For some reason that I couldn't immediately fathom ur-Lara wasn't standing over me chuckling with an Uzi pressed to my forehead. Perhaps Father had been right about the "mental health" of ur-Earth - namely, mad or senile. Maybe ur-Lara possessed the same sort of tactical know-how as the Emperor Caligula had displayed when he ordered bowmen to fire into the ocean waves in attempt to defeat Poseidon.
I was healed, even if the disco outfit was a bit too shredded for modesty. It's amazingly reassuring to possess a little blue object that can cure anything - gunshot wounds, falls froom a great height, third degree burns. If only someone would design a first aid kit like that.
I rolled over and stared at more evidence of ur-Earth's tactical incompetence. If it really wanted to kill me, then it should have left the great flat plain alone and set a battalion of ur-Laras after me. Instead, - with the surreal feat of recreating the Croft mansion - it had provided me with cover.
Unless of course it was just toying with me, I thought.
I poked my head up higher. No sign of ur-Lara. I sprinted to the shadow of the perimeter wall next to the front gates. As I ran I had an uncomfortable sensation in my pants. Not looking down, I reached through the rents in my disco outfit and fumbled around in the crotch area. Six slightly battered Uzi shells - the blue soap must have ejected them from my body somehow. I couldn't think of an immediate use for six spent bullets so I ditched them.
Ahead of the gates was the front door. To the right was the maze. To the left was a low wall with the firing range just beyond. I wondered if ur-Earth had recreated my pistols along with everything else. Only the truly mad would be that pedantic.
I looked at the map. My dot had moved about the quarter of the way to the target. I tried to overlay this information onto the Croft mansion. In the hall containing the television? Beyond that, in the middle of the obstacle course? I wasn't sure.
The obstacle course seemed the best bet. I could head around the outside of the house with good cover and look for those pistols.
As I slinked through the low doorway in the wall, I heard a whooshing sound in front of me. ur-Lara was standing with a grin on her face and a rocket launcher on her shoulder. I threw myself flat as the rocket flew over my head into the wall of the mansion. There was an enormous explosion as a section of wall was blown away. The floor above collapsed into the gap and part of the roof fell in. I was almost buried.
I heard ur-Lara laughing. "Oh great," I thought.
Not even I can see through a cloud of dust and if I couldn't, then neither could she. I was on my feet immediately and diving into a narrow gap under a part of the obstacle course. The gap was a low wide tunnel to provide a crawling exercise, and to my relief and disbelief, there were my Browning pistols, just where I'd hidden them. After the midnight visit by Marco di Bartoli's men, I liked to keep my options open.
"Now we're talking," I said. If I could bring her down then maybe I could steal her Uzis.
There was another whoosh. I rolled sideways along the rest of the crawl way and leapt for the water pool on the other side. The obstacle course exploded above me into a shower of burning planks. One of the towers crashed into the water inches from my face and the wash threw me into the side wall of the pool, winding me. I had to surface, but yet again ur-Lara had obscured her vision with clouds of smoke mixed with flame.
I took a moment to glance at the "map". I still had to get to the back of the house and it was obvious that the fuel was inside the building somewhere. I put my hands on the edge of the pool and attempted to vault out, but the water had gotten through the holes in the disco outfit making me heavier. I did a handstand on the edge of the pool so that the water cascaded over my face, blinding me. I was expecting a rocket to the gut, or at least a stream of bullets but there was nothing.
I took out the kitchen windows with the Brownings and dove through into the darkness. Now all I needed was a psychotic Winston.
Nothing happened, which was worse somehow and should have made me suspicious. The kitchen was the kitchen, and the hall was the hall, and the dining room was the dining room. I was tempted to switch on the television to see if it really worked or was just for show.
Near the windows at the back of the house overlooking the obstacle course was a pile of stone doughnuts. They were heavy. I put five into my back pack, wondering if I could yomp and fight at the same time. It felt as if I had a full Bergen on my shoulders. I decided that I could always ditch some of the fuel doughnuts later if necessary.
The front door was open and there was no sound except the ticking of the grandfather clock. I scanned the upper landing, the Brownings held out at arms length in front of me. Nothing.
I could see the spacecraft through the front gates, and wondered if I could keep up a sprint over the open ground. I was generally OK for a hundred yards or so, but then I tended to slow to a run.
"Here goes nothing," I thought, and legged it. If ur-Lara was as bad a shot with a rocket launcher as I was when faced with a moving target, I figured that I'd make it.
I dashed down the drive and through the gates, braced for the explosion. The hatch of the spacecraft was open and the ramp was down.
I was just about to dash up inside, filled with relief, when my blood chilled. I did a forward roll and threw myself under the ramp instead of up it.
Why was the hatch open? Hadn't I given Joe strict instructions not to let anybody but me back in? Surely he wasn't that dumb?
I peered up through the hatch and saw "Lassie" at the top, waiting for me. It was calmly clicking and bobbing. Nothing about it seemed unusual. I edged out of cover and crab-walked up the ramp, keeping my head down, Brownings at the ready.
I poked my head up into the ship corridor, but there was nothing but "Lassie". Gingerly I eased the backpack off my shoulders and opened the flap. "Lassie" picked up all off the doughnuts with a metal arm and then moved slowly away into the depths of the ship.
I climbed up fully and the hatch closed behind me. At least security was restored, but I didn't like the quiet.
I found Joe in the bridge. His throat had been cut so thoroughly that his head was almost severed. His body was full of deep knife wounds. I thought of trying the blue soap, but then I realised that I would be too late. Even the glittering machine hadn't attempted to take him in. A bloody trail suggested that he had been killed elsewhere and then propped up in one of the pilot chairs like a trophy.
The ship shuddered prior to lifting off.
I touched Joe's blood matted hair and closed his eyelids. He'd lost so much blood that he resembled a waxwork. I'd like to say that I was overcome with grief, but instead I felt annoyed and disappointed, as if I'd lost a set at tennis.
"No more broken windows for you, old son," I said. The thought of Joe up his ladder with his putty made me close my eyes for a second. "Don't you worry. I'll have her for this."
She was obviously on board - he'd thought she was me. Not so dumb, really. I wondered if she'd been kissing him as she'd slipped the knife into him.
The ship began to rise from the surface of ur-Earth, pressing me into the floor. It seemed that it was time for me to play at Nemesis. So I got started.
7. And then there was one.
I'm no angel, unless it's the Angel of Death. I've killed hundreds of people. I've seem more dead and mutilated bodies than is perhaps proper for a well brought up young lady. They didn't have much to say about violent death in finishing school, and my etiquette lessons are only of any use when it comes to making polite and ironic conversation with people before I shoot them. I don't have any illusions about myself. I've had my apologists who've claimed that I only kill in self-defence, but this seems like a thin excuse when it comes to killing guards who are just doing their job whilst I'm in the middle of some archaeological heist. I've mown down animals when they've gotten in my way. I've killed species so endangered that nobody is even sure that they exist. I've slaughtered gods. If I have a philosophy, then it contains about as much respect for human life as that of the ancient Aztecs. I resemble Shiva the Destroyer. Let's face it - I'm a mass murderer.
I only mention all of this because that was the sort of person I was going up against. ur-Lara was me, but with a bad case of P.M.T. She was as fast as me, she knew all my moves and she was a total bitch. I've faced myself once before in Natla's mines. Natla had amusingly produced one of her butcher block clones, looking like me but with a bad case of weeping psoriasis. That particular Lara had done nothing but mimic my every move. She'd still been a bit of a sod to get rid of, and ur-Lara was much, much worse than that.
I took stock of my armoury. I had the shotgun and about twenty shells. I had more than a dozen bits of blue soap. I tried to crack open the Brownings, but I couldn't; they were ur-Brownings, of course. With a bit of luck they were magic and contained a limitless supply of ur-bullets.
I looked in my backpack. There were some tampons. Tampons are quite good for plugging large bullet wounds if you don't mind anaphylactic shock, but I guessed the blue soap would be sufficient. There was a thin rope with a grappling hook left over from the time that I had cleared the gutters on the West Wing. There was a self-heating meal I'd scrounged off some squaddies on Salisbury Plain. There was my Bowie knife, still covered in cheese from my most recent in-field cheese sandwich. There was a small bottle with a few tabs of speed. There was my travel humidor containing some old Montechristos, and my US Army issue Zippo. There were some dirty knickers I'd forgotten to launder. Finally there was a dead spider, a half-eaten packet of HobNobs and a can of Inca Cola I'd picked up in Peru. I crouched down in a corner of the bridge where I hastily ate a HobNob, drank some Inca Cola and necked two amphetamine tablets. It pays to be alert but unfortunately Inca Cola, though nominally coke, is hardly the real thing. I'd have lit up a Montechristo and done a "Man with no name", but I didn't want to give ur-Lara any more clues than was necessary. I wondered if the spaceship had a toilet, but then decided that it was best not thought about. I should have gone in the house. Although the loos probably would have been as fake as the Brownings.
The first step was to find her. She wasn't on the flight deck, that was for sure. I tried looking at my map. I couldn't see the "fuel" any more and the map had no indication of depth, but I could still see myself. More to the point - spookily - I could see a second white dot. The ship had obviously identified ur-Lara as me. Perhaps that was why we'd lifted off so suddenly.
If she'd been on the same level, I should have been able to see her. The only explanation was that she was below me somewhere. I headed for the lift.
Father was tied up in his armchair and books from the shelves in the study were all over the floor or smoldering in the fireplace. He'd been beaten - I gently removed the gag from his mouth. He stared at me with wide eyes, saying nothing. I undid his hands and he fingered his mouth.
"What more do you want?" he said.
"That wasn't me," I said, picking up the pieces of his pipe from the floor. I was going to pour him a Scotch but the bottle had been hurled against the wall. "That's ur-Lara from your precious ur-Earth."
"I'm sorry," said Father eventually. "I thought it was you in one of your moods."
I glared at him. "When did I ever lay a finger on you?"
"Sorry," he said, mopping his brow with his handkerchief. "She talked just like you. She didn't want to go to Mars. She demanded that I return us to Earth. I thought it was you."
I looked at my map. She was not far away. "Where's Stella?"
"She took her forward," said Father. "To the warrior storage area."
"You dispatched one when you first came on board."
"Then set them on her!"
"How will they tell you apart?"
I took my Bowie knife and chopped off my braided ponytail. It had always been a nuisance and I could grow another one. I threw it in the fire. "There you are. Different hair, different clothes. Didn't you even notice her bloody clothes?"
"I'm so used to the other get up ..." said Father. "Still enough of this moaning minnie business. She shut off my control of the ship. I'll get it back. You'll find her through that door ahead. I'll try and activate the warriors."
I started off, loading the shotgun and freeing the Brownings in their holsters.
"She said that she was going have some ... fun ... with Stella."
I didn't want to think about what I might have considered 'fun'.
The hall lined with motionless "Cybermen" and Stella was strung up by her wrists from some overhead brackets. ur-Lara was just turning to see who I was when I let her have it with two shotgun barrels to the head. There are times when small talk isn't appropriate. She did a speedy triple back somersault and crashed to the floor in a shower of brain and bone.
"Stella!" I hissed, reloading my shotgun. There was no answer.
ur-Lara propped herself up on her elbows. Somehow I'd blown a hole through her head. She laughed in a strangled way and pushed her jaw back into place. I could see the wounds filing in, and in a moment her face was back. She raised an eyebrow and gave me a narrow-eyed smile.
"Scared yet?" she said. "You can't kill me, you know. I'm like a computer animation of your mind."
I fired again, but she flipped backwards so that the shot hit the floor. She grabbed a spear from a "Cyberman" and hurled it me. It grazed my arm and I dived behind a warrior.
"You think they'd have invented ray guns for these guys," I said, and fired my shotguns, blowing a hole in her shoulder.
"Or at least a good old fashioned Uzi," said Lara, opening fire with a submachine gun grasped in her good hand. The "Cyberman" disintegrated and I rolled sideways.
All I had to do was keep her distracted long enough for the warriors to be activated, I thought. Unfortunately she was on me before I could react. I saw the handle of a spear arching through the air towards my face and then nothing.
I found myself hanging by the wrists next to Stella, who was coming round.
"Aren't these things great?" said ur-Lara, holding up a blue soap from my backpack. "Watch this." She gutted Stella with a spear tip and watched the blood hit the floor. Stella fainted. ur-Lara waited a few seconds and then applied the blue soap to the wound.
"You supposed to be me, are you?" I said. It was hard to breathe.
"Don't you remember those ants and the magnifying glass?" said ur-Lara. "Those little bastards really exploded in the sun."
"I don't kill for fun."
ur-Lara threw back her head and laughed merrily. At least she wasn't totally like me, I thought. "Your whole life is a quest for fun," she said, with her hands on her hip.
Keep talking sucker, I thought, my eyes flickering to the "Cybermen".
"Oh I disabled all of them," said ur-Lara.
I smiled thinly. "How did you know how to do that?" I asked. "I've certainly no idea."
ur-Lara blew my foot off with a burst of Uzi fire. "You've always been a snotty little bitch," I think she said. "The world's your playground. Fair enough. Let's play." I blacked out when she blew the other foot off.
I was soon back, thanks to the blue soap.
"Why are you still alive?" she asked, looking deep into my face.
"For fun?" I muttered.
"Father managed to do one thing before I beat him up," she said. "This ship stills thinks of you as the designated pilot, for some reason."
The disco outfit, I thought. It must have a signature. "Oh," I said.
"I wonder how long I'll have to torture you both before you'll take me to Earth?
I found myself frowning. Father had said that hadn't realised that ur-Lara wasn't me. So why had he prevented the ship from accepting ur-Lara as the pilot?
"Lara," said Stella, who seemed to be coming around. "Please don't ..."
ur-Lara whipped her across the face with the Uzi. I noticed that my Brownings were still in their holsters.
ur-Lara was obviously still not tactically perfect.
"The problem with being insane," I said, "is that although one might have the will and the strength, it's hard to think straight."
ur-Lara smiled. "Takes one to know one."
"I'd have disarmed me," I said, jerking my head to indicate the Brownings.
ur-Lara stopped smiling, which was something of a relief. She took the Brownings. "I wonder what sort of plan you're formulating in that devious little head?" she said, weighing them in her hand.
"You'll kill me before you get the information you want," I said. "You're completely cracked. You just don't have the patience."
She shot Stella several times in the stomach. "I don't have to fix her, you know."
"So what?" I said. "I'm not going to endanger Earth to save Dr. Oldfield."
ur-Lara came over and held a Browning to my forehead. "Oh well," she said with a shrug. "I'll just have to let the machines on Mars do it instead. I only wanted to go to Earth for a bit more fun before it's rendered lifeless."
"Something on Mars has reactivated them, and they are gathering energy as we speak. Father was going to try and save the tombs on Olympus Mons, but he overlooked the machines. Perhaps he doesn't know about them ..."
I sighed and smiled. "Whatever," I said.
ur-Lara placed the gun muzzle on my nose. I could see her finger tightening on the trigger and tried not to flinch. I could see the finger whitening as the pressure increased, but there was no shot.
ur-Lara looked at the gun, closely. "Where did you get this piece of crap?" she said in a puzzled tone. "It won't fire any more." Suddenly she yelped and dropped the Browning like a hot cake. It hit the floor with a squelch and stuck there. ur-Lara was looking at what seemed to be melted gun metal on her fingers. She tried to wipe it off on her shorts, but her fingers and clothing seemed to be sticky.
She licked her lips and there was a look of panic in her eyes. Her tongue seemed to stick to her upper lip.
"I'm melting," she said sounding like a ventriloquist with a speech defect. Her legs buckled and she screamed a bubbly scream. Slowly she folded up like a candle in a blowtorch flame until there was nothing left but a shapeless lump of browny pink mush. Her eyes were still glaring crazily at me as her face sank into her torso.
"Are you all right?" said Father a little while later as "Lassie" cut us down. Stella was being taken straight to the glittering machine to be fixed.
"She was a creation of ur-Earth," he said. "I suppose we just flew out of range."
8. Two breakfasts and an exposition
"Can I come in?" I said, knocking on the bathroom door.
"O.K.," said Stella's voice. She was lying up to her neck in the hot water, her chin resting on a blanket of bubbles.
I sat down on the toilet. "He's done an amazing job," I said gesturing at the bathroom. "How was your room?"
Stella grimaced. "I tried to pretend that it was real," she said.
"You should come out for breakfast. He's made this pine Ikea-type dining table and something that looks and feels like spring sunshine coming in through the windows. You can even smell grass."
"Is the food real?"
"It's nutritious and looks real, if that what you mean."
"I think if I ate it I'd throw up."
I rested my chin on my hand and looked at her. I didn't blame her. "Shall I wash your hair?" I asked. I'd heard this was a bonding-type thing to do.
Stella sniffed and blinked gratefully. "O.K.," she said.
I poured water from a jug over her hair a few times. "So we're going to Mars," I said, taking some shampoo and smearing it over her head. I wasn't quite sure what to do next, so I tried massaging the soap into her scalp.
"That's nice," said Stella. "Your fingers seem real."
"I'm real," I said. It hadn't occurred to me that she'd have any doubts. "Don't I seem real? After all - I haven't sliced your ear off or poured petrol over you yet, have it?"
Stella stiffened. "Don't," she said, grabbing my hand. "Don't joke."
"Sorry," I said, rinsing my hands in the bath and handing her the jug. "I've picked up a sort of gallows humour somewhere along the way."
"This is just an ordinary day for you, isn't it?" said Stella, blowing the soapy water away from her nose and mouth.
"Not really," I said. "Somehow I think that space travel just isn't my cup of tea. I think we stumbled into the wrong movie." I handed her some towels.
"I could do with a cup of tea," said Stella.
Father tried to join us, but Stella asked him to go away.
"Guess what my hobby is," she said, buttering a piece of toast is a very controlled way.
"Um ... wine tasting? Horses?" I had no idea about hobbies. "The theatre?"
"Astronomy," said Stella. "I'm an astronomy nut. I watch every programme. I wanted to be Heather Couper when I was little."
"Good," I said. "It's good to have an interest outside of work."
"I've watched and read everything about Mars that you can imagine. I've gazed at the pictures from Mars Pathfinder for hours, just trying to imagine what it would be like to stand there. I've even got a photo of Olympus Mons in my flat."
"That's ... an amazing coincidence," I said.
"Not really," said Stella. "Ordinary people are interested in things like that."
I half-smiled at the implied criticism and poured myself some coffee. Father had managed to come up with a quite mellow blend, with hints of Java and Kenya. "You're pissed off then," I said.
"Pissed off - as you so delicately put it - might describe some of my feelings."
"Come on, Stella," I said, tipping back my chair and putting my feet on the table. "We're in this together and I need to know what you think."
Stella laughed a bitter breathy laugh. "I'm scared witless," she said counting on her fingers. "I'm sickened by Joe's death. I fed up with you bullying me. This ship gives me the creeps. I don't want to go to Mars. I don't want any more shocks. I want to lie on the sofa in my flat listening to opera and eating Haagen-Daas Chocolate Vanilla Fudge ice cream with my boyfriend. Yes, I'm a bit pissed off."
I nodded. She had me there. I didn't know what to say, so I said "I didn't know you had a boyfriend."
"Why would you?" said Stella, angry tears appearing in her eyes. She slammed back her chair and stalked off back to her bedroom.
"We need maps and stuff," I said to Father. "Up to date maps."
"O.K.," said Father.
"I want to get Stella onto the Internet. I want you to contact Mars and find stuff out. Can we do that?"
"If there's radio signals around, I'm sure we can intercept them."
"And finally - what's this machine that the other Lara was going on about?" I told him what she had said about the machines that were set to destroy Earth.
Father just looked at me with his mouth open. "Oh my God," he said, eventually.
"I take it that you didn't know?"
"It didn't occur to me ..." he said, gazing at nothing. "After all this time ..."
"And?" I said.
"This is what I know," said Father, heavily. "This ship picked up a distress call from the tombs on Olympus Mons. It was an automated signal, but the most likely explanation is that something has happened which endangers them. It might even just be a natural phenomenon, like ... I don't know ... an earth tremor?"
"They've never measured any seismic activity on Mars," said Stella, who was standing in the study doorway. "It's supposed to be dead."
"Come in my dear," said Father, hastily. One hesitates to ascribe feelings to an artificial human but he gave the impression of a schoolboy in disgrace who was trying to make up for it. "Have a seat."
"We're talking about something the other Lara said," I said, bluntly. I wasn't sure if Stella was up to it.
"O.K.," said Stella, evenly. "Do carry on."
"Well ... maybe we weren't the only ones to receive that message. Or maybe whatever it is that caused the message to be sent has also activated the machines," said Father.
"Cut to the chase," I said.
"Mars hasn't been dead as long as everybody thinks," said Father. "About ten thousand years ago, there was war between ur-Earth and Mars. They both sent machines which reduced the two planets to dried, dead husks. The survivors from both planets made it to Earth. The Olympians."
"And the machines have just woken up from a long armistice and decided to carry on the war?"
"ur-Earth must have been alerted to survivors by our arrival. Maybe they contacted the machines," said Father. "I don't know."
"You see the problem?" I said to Stella.
Stella set her jaw and smiled grimly. "I see the problem," she said.
Stella was on-line, sort of, so I left her to it. I'd had a bath and now I was lying on my bed, relaxing. There is nothing quite like stretching and rolling and nuzzling on a bed with silk sheets and pillow cases.
Especially if one is naked. I rubbed my nose and face into the pillow. I moved my legs under the sheets so that I could feel them. Pure sensual bliss. I was in one of my cat moods.
I was pointing and relaxing my toes at the ceiling whilst massaging my calves when I started thinking about Joe. It had been affecting the way he was so keen on my breasts. When I was younger I'd hated them and had wanted my parents to pay for a reduction. Slowly - one way or another - I'd learned to live with it. Yoga helped. It seems to me that whatever shape you are you wish you were something else. Thinking about Joe made me feel quite sexy, but then I remembered his cut throat. So I got up and got dressed.
Nothing much happened that day. I did some exercises in the hall full of "Cybermen". The gravity wasn't up to much, but I dutifully carried out some isometric "bracing" using the "Cybermen" as props. They were surprising sturdy on their feet. They were definitely machines. Father and ur-Lara were machine projections. The threat to earth was from machines. I wondered what was in the tombs on Olympus Mons. It didn't please me much to think that I had been kidnapped by a fancy version of a Spectrum ZX computer. "Lassie" came in and started fiddling around in the innards of the "Cybermen" so I left.
"Are we nearly there yet, Dad?" I said to Father. "Stella says it'll take months."
Father smiled. "This ship can travel by a choice of routes. The one that we're on has a slightly different definition of time and distance to that of Newton's. We'll be there in a couple of days."
"Very gnomic," I said.
"Ironically, it's further from ur-Earth to Earth than it is from Earth to Mars at the moment, but the latter takes longer."
"That is ironic, isn't it? So - how come nobody on Earth has spotted ur-Earth yet?"
"It's invisible. To everything, even radar. If it wants to be. The whole surface of the planet is available for disguise. It can manage a zero albedo."
"A likely story," I said. "Is there anything good on telly?"
So I put my feet up for a few hours and smoked cigars whilst I watched 'Allo 'Allo!, Blake's Seven, The Sweeney and Benny Hill, beamed direct from some satellite station. The finale was Carry on Cleo. How I laughed.
Father had beaten us down to breakfast the next "morning". Stella nearly turned on her heel.
"Dr. Oldfield. Please. I need to brief you at some stage. It might as well be in convivial circumstances. Have a kipper," said Father, gesturing at the sideboard.
"Don't tell me," I said, raising the lid of a silver salver. "Kedgeree."
"The thought of fish for breakfast makes me nauseous," sad Stella, stiffly. She was looking gaunt and tired. "I have half a grapefruit, a glass of orange juice and some lemon tea."
Father kept the look of disbelief off his face. "What a lot of citrus," he remarked. "You must have American blood."
"And I'll have a full English breakfast with extra toast," I said. "And a gin and tonic." I'd recovered from the previous night when I had still been rather speedy.
"Lara!" said Father. "Gin for breakfast? It's so common. Why don't you at least have an Irish coffee?"
"I'm not sure if the cream would pour properly in this gravity," I said.
"A fair point," said Father.
We ate in silence for a while. I was trying to see how many of the components of an English breakfast I could stick onto a fork at once when Stella cleared her throat.
"I found out loads on the Net," she said. "Although it was quite slow. Not as slow as at the University, but slow, nonetheless."
"Spill the beans," I said, with a mouthful of bacon, egg, sausage, toast, fried bread, tomatoes, black pudding. And beans.
Father shot me a look of disgust. "You're behaving like a Land Girl," he said.
"I don't know where to start. We're at Earth's closest approach to Mars at the moment and it's summer on Olympus Mons," said Stella.
"Nice and sunny," I said.
"From what I could gather the temperature at the summit of the mountain is about minus 80 degrees centrigade or lower, and the air pressure is about one thousandth of atmospheric. It's fifteen times the height of Everest and apparently its surface area is roughly that of Montana. Not that I've any idea how big Montana is."
"Sounds like we'll need more than stout tweed clothing and a good pair of boots then."
"We'll be landing in the caldera," said Father.
Stella smiled, thinly. "It's bizarre some of the stuff about Mars," she said. "Take the Phobos missions, for example. Launched by the Russians in 1988 to survey the planet. They carried landers that never landed, and are a big favourite amongst Flying Saucer buffs. I read a list of mission anomalies. 300 square miles of gridwork visible only on infrared - like an underground city. The shadow of something oval on the planet's surface that couldn't have been one of the moons. A ten-mile-long cigar-shaped object hanging in orbit next to the Phobos moon. Apparently a scientist called Dr. Maria Popovich brought it to attention of the Western press."
"Well it's a good job we're not wasting our time," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"I thought for a second you were going to tell us that there was nothing on Mars but a thin layer of frozen rust."
Father dabbed his mouth and sighed. "The remains," he said sombrely. "After the machines from ur-Earth had finished. They used the atmosphere to oxidise the civilisation. A very neat piece of chemistry."
"Tell us about the tombs," I said.
"One of the wonders of the Universe," said Father. He smiled and his eyes watered. "One of the most magnificent achievements. It rates with the pyramids. The whole complex is made from dry ice - blocks of solid carbon dioxide. The only place on Mars that such an architecture is possible is at the summit of Olympus Mons."
"Dry ice?" said Stella.
"You're kidding," I said.
"It's a fine building material. More beautiful than marble, and weighty enough to be used effectively in a low gravity. A brick of dry ice is as heavy as a brick, but much stronger."
"The only thing I know about dry ice is that it sublimes," said Stella.
"The only thing I know about dry ice is that you have to wrap it in gauze before you use it chill champagne," I said. "And that it's fun to tie up in a condom for making a bang at a party."
"The sublimation is the greatest problem, and the greatest mystery," said Father, ignoring me. "At such a low pressure carbon dioxide should slowly vapourise, especially over aeons. The tombs are underground, and somehow they are stabilised in an special atmosphere. Something has altered that delicate balance. Maybe a rise in local temperature. Maybe a large breach."
"And whose tombs are they?" said Stella, after we'd digested that information for a few moments.
"Who would you expect to be buried on the summit of Mount Olympus?" said Father.
9.First girls on Mars
"What would you like to call them?" said Father. "We could only fix three of them."
The three "Cybermen" clunked to a halt and didn't look at anything.
"Christ," muttered Stella. The glittering machine had fixed us both up with new disco outfits, and hers suited her. "Can't we go without them?"
"We might need them," I said. "Therefore I name these warriors Bill, Ben and Little Weed."
"Do they speak?" asked Stella.
"Yes, Ma'am," said Little Weed.
"What are they armed with?" I asked.
"As you can see," said Father. "Large spears."
"Oh great," I said. "So it's going to be like going after a velociraptor with a harpoon gun is it?"
"I could pierce the eye socket and brain pan of a foe with my first throw," said Ben.
"Only a bad workman blames his tools," said Little Weed.
"I see you've been programming them," I said to Father. "Are we going to be treated to improving aphorisms the whole time?"
"An empty cart makes most noise," said Bill.
"And this is for you," said Father handing an object about the size of a video cassette. It looked the part, a mixture of futuristic, organic and historic styles. "This reprograms the Doomsday weapon. It should return harmlessly to ur-Earth and self-destruct. The control machine is somewhere in the central tomb. The warriors will show you what to do."
"How long until the countdown runs out?" I said.
"About ten hours," said Father. "Plenty of time."
"A stitch in times saves nine," said Little Weed.
My powers of description are somewhat limited and so I am at a loss as how to describe the impression that our first sight of the surface made on us. Chilled to the bone is the best phrase I can muster.
"Oh my God," Stella's voice said over the radio. We were gazing out over a red field strewn with blackish boulders. The sky was a corpselike white, and there was a thin whistling sound like wind. "This is an awful place."
I've been to Antarctica, to the Nazca desert, to the depths of the ocean, and the scale or the loneliness or the atmosphere of the places has overawed me, but this was something else.
"I'm cold," said Stella, wrapping her arms around herself and stumbling out onto the boulder field.
"You can't be," I said. But I was cold too.
"I feel like I can't breathe," said Stella.
"Your suit supplies your every need," I said. But I felt as if I was having an asthma attack.
We were in the base of a crater in a corner of the volcanic caldera. I thought I could see the crater lip offin the distance. There was no view. You'd expect a view at an altitude of 25km. We couldn't even see out of the crater. I'd seen an aerial photo of the crater and the volcano. The crater was tiny.
"Time waits for no man," said Bill.
"The early bird catches the worm," added Little Weed.
I found myself walking along, looking at my feet, and trying not to stub my toe on a rock. I felt totally unreal. I felt like an ant walking along under a descending shoe. My senses refused to believe that my body was less than an inch away from sudden death. It was like being made of glass. One stumble and you'd shatter, or so it seemed. I wondered how Colonel Bean had relaxed enough to play golf on the moon. He must have had cast-iron guts.
"Hold my hand," said Stella.
"Good idea," I said. "Less chance of falling or getting disorientated."
We were heading for a microscopic crater which was about a thousand yards across. An entrance to the tombs was supposed to be there.
Stella must have read my mind. "The disposition of dust here isn't too bad, every with the planetwide dust storms. The average net dust deposition rate in the floor of craters is estimated to be about 10 microns per year. Therefore over 10,000 years, that's about 10 cm. I think."
I squeezed her hand. "That's a relief then," I said.
Ahead of us, Little Weed climbed a small rise and then stopped still. Bill and Ben, a few steps behind, did the same. Little Weed crouched down and probed the ground in front of him with a spear tip.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Come and see," said Little Weed. "The crater is filled."
We topped the rise. I was expecting to see a pond of Stella's Martian dust, but instead the crater seemed to be covered with a solid lid, camouflaged with a mottled red and black pattern.
"It looks like canvas," said Stella. "It looks like a cricket pitch cover."
On the other side of the crater were some formations that at a distance looked like boulders but which on closer inspection looked more like winches.
"What is this symbol?" said Little Weed, pointing down at the crater cover.
I looked closer. It was a hammer and sickle symbol.
Bill stepped onto the canvas. It was solid. However at that moment it jerked and Bill was thrown onto his back. The whole "canvas" surface was beginning to move. What was exposed underneath was a bit of a surprise.
"It's ironic," said Lajos in Hungarian, some time later. "Just when we finally finish the project and pressurise the environment we have to go home. No more cash."
"We are the Apollo 17 of Mars," said Istvan. "Only it's a military secret."
When the cover had pulled back revealing the dome and the "town" in the crater floor, I had ordered the "Cybermen" to take cover and wait until I called them. I must still have been the "designated captain", for they obeyed without question.
"It's like an oasis in the desert," I said to Stella. "Something human."
"I'm totally lost for words," she said.
"There's an air lock," I said. "It's just like the hatch on a Soviet submarine."
As we descended to crater floor level, our "disco outfits" unsheathed our heads. There was warm air at atmospheric pressure.
"No wonder the tombs are thawing," I said.
There was a sign like a street sign, which read "Farkas Bertalan Ut."
"How's your Hungarian?" I said to Stella. I figured that the inhabitants on the base would have the same hospitality rules as the Bedouin.
"Not bad," she said. She looked relieved and tense at the same time.
"Szia?" said a voice, and Lajos stepped out of the shadows, closely followed by Istvan. They looked just like young pioneer cosmonauts should look. Sex in a spacesuit.
Later around a cup of tea in base headquarters we were getting to know each other. There's something about being the only humans in the middle of hell that stimulates the old appetites. Even Stella was looking perky.
"So you are a English millionaire with an interest in archaeology?" said Lajos. "And you just decided to build a rocket and fly to Mars. On the basis of some unlikely mythologies?" He laughed with a glint of pearl.
"The English," said Istvan.
"You are like Professor Challenger."
"Only more attractive."
"Why do you cover the dome?" asked Stella.
"The Mars Orbital Camera," said Istvan. "It passes over every now and again. We are shy of having our picture taken."
"The Americans claim that it has a resolution of ten metres." They both laughed uproariously.
"How long have you guys been here?"
"The first surveyor device landed in March 1988. The Phobos project," said Lajos.
"There were fifty-two Phobos drops, about five a year."
"The first human team arrived in 1995. They left from Mir."
"Now it is all over. All dressed up and nowhere to go, as the saying goes."
"There is a unmanned ship in orbit waiting for us to rendezvous."
"Maybe we could get a ride with you girls instead."
We all giggled.
They swallowed the eccentric English explorers stuff, but I wasn't sure how I was going to explain the "Cybermen".
"Just ... hold onto your hats," I said before I went back outside to fetch the troops.
Istvan and Lajos let out an oath simultaneously when Bill, Ben and Little Weed clunked into view.
"We had no idea," said Lajos. "What do they retail at in American dollars?"
"They are not generally available," I said. "So we know your secrets and now you know one of ours."
"We do not understand this language," said Little Weed.
"I do," I said, "and that is all that matters."
"We must vent the atmosphere from around the tomb entrance and lower the temperature," said Bill.
"Only on my command," I said. "We need to reconnoitre first. The situation may work to our advantage when it comes to handling the ur-Earth machines."
I glanced at Lajos and Istvan. It's a well known fact that all Hungarians speak perfect English. They were gazing at Bill with awe. If they understood what we'd been saying, it didn't seem to have sunk in.
"Let's find the entrance," I said.
The fact that the Mars mission hadn't found the entrance when building the base was, as Dylan might have put it, due to a simple twist of fate. When they'd been building a trench for the foundations, they'd shoveled the soil over the entrance to the tombs. Ten yards to the east and they'd have exposed it instead of covering it up.
"Will we let air in?" I said to Little Weed.
"There is an airlock," he said.
"Suit up," I said to the Hungarians, who had insisted on coming with us.
"I'm afraid that our spacesuits are not as sexy as yours," said Istvan.
"Oh, I don't know," I said.
10. The thirsty ones
There must be something in the human psyche that dislikes fog at night. It must have been a Victorian thing to start using dry ice smoke in horror shows. The entrance to the first tomb was pitch black apart from the areas lit by the headlights of the "Cybermen" and my Maglight. Visibility was down to a few yards and the rest was swirling, glittering clouds.
"Amazing," said Stella. I was expecting hysterics, but her intellectual curiosity had taken over.
I looked at my Breitling watch. The pressure and temperature were too low to read.
"Shine a light here," she said. We were standing in front of an archway fashioned from blinding white material. There were pockmarks in it, like one can make by running a block of ice under a hot tap. There was some of the Linear script cut into the lintel.
"QE-RA-SI-JA," read Stella. "Amazing. Teiresias."
"That being Teiresias the Seer who was summoned back from the kingdom of the dead by Odysseus using a trench full of blood?" I said.
"Very good," said Stella. "We'll make you a pre-classical scholar yet."
Little Weed, Bill and Ben advanced through the doorway, spears at the ready. As they entered the chamber ahead, more and more glimpses of it were illuminated.
"Are you expecting trouble?" I asked Little Weed. Father had assured us that the tombs would regard us as "friend" and not "foe" and so had dismissed my request for information as to what exactly happened to "foe".
There's many a slip 'twickst cup and lip," said Little Weed. I sighed.
I had expected a tomb-shaped tomb, like an Egyptian sarcophagus or a memorial in Westminster Abbey, but the Olympians had other ideas. The "Cybermen" were converging on a giant dry ice throne, and it was occupied.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Lajos, closely followed by Istvan. He looked terrified. He leant his helmet so that it touched my faced - the Hungarians only had radio contact with each other.
"It is safe?" he yelled, in an eerily booming voice. "It is wonderful, but is it safe?"
I shrugged with my hands and tried to make a reassuring smile. I patted them on the shoulders and gestured for they to stay where they were.
"Lara," called Stella. "Come and look at this."
She was standing in front of the throne. The occupant was humanoid. It had facial hair, covered in glittering crystals, and was wearing an archaic robe. There were ice filled sockets where its eyes should have been and it was crowned with what looked like a frozen laurel wreath.
"The blind prophet," said Stella in a breathless voice. "Straight out of myth."
Stella obviously hadn't been paying attention when she'd been watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. She reached out a tentative hand to touch the frozen claw grasping the throne's armrest.
"Don't do that," I said.
Suddenly from all around us a voice, deepened by the fog, boomed "Tanatosa". There was obviously enough carbon dioxide in the tomb to conduct sound. The "Cybermen" pulled Stella and I away from the throne and formed a circle around us, spears pointing outwards.
I suppose that cosmonauts would hardly have been perceived as "friends". Shapes came leaping out of the fog, moving like humans pretending to be hounds. They were onto Istvan and Lajos before anyone could react. They went down in a welter of claws and blood. I could see the blood freezing instantly and falling as snow or congealing on the icy floor. The hunters scooped up the bloody ice like a dessert and licked it enthusiastically. They burrowed inside the remains of the spacesuits like a shoal of pirhanas. The fog closed in.
Ben bounded off into the fog. I caught a last glimpse of him spearing one of the hunters and throwing it high into the air in the low Martian gravity.
Bill and Little Weed hustled us behind the throne.
"This is the wrong way," I yelled.
"Shut up, Lara!" yelled Stella.
Little Weed pushed us towards a doorway-like opening. Inside Bill found a mechanism embedded in the ice. He inserted a tube from the rack on his chest into a frosty socket. There was a high pitched screeching sound from above, and shards of ice fell into the doorway. Bill pressed a button, and the bottom of a door appeared. It was heat-eaten and misshapen. It had descended to above half closed when the first of the dog things bounded underneath it and leapt straight at me.
Fortunately I'm used to things leaping at me. I crouched and levered up a shard of dry ice about twenty inches long. The dog thing was impaled quite satisfactorily, its claws swiping at my face in its death throes.
I could see that it was a machine. Little Weed caught another in the throat and Bill slammed two into the walls on each side of him as they ran through the door. The door was a third closed when Bill crouched down and blocked the remaining space with his body. Dog things tried to wriggle past him but he stopped them. Then he began to shudder as the pack threw itself against him. He let out a dull screaming sound, but none of the pack got through. They must have been attacking his face, for suddenly his head collapsed and the door settled onto the ruins of his shoulders. The way was closed.
Little Weed stood quite still for a second, his face half lit by his headlights. His face was expressionless as usual but he was looking at Bill.
"It's a bad way to die," I said.
"It is a good way to die," said Little Weed.
"Why'd they attack us?"
"Even we are not permitted sacrilege."
"I only touched him!" said Stella, in an anguished voice. She'd totally lost it.
"You only touched a god," said Little Weed.
"I'm going to die," said Stella, sinking to her knees. "I'm going to die for being curious."
"Curiosity ..." began Little Weed, but I gestured for him to be quiet.
"You are not going to die," I said.
"Yeah, right," said Stella. "You're a liar. You're a killer. You don't give a damn about me. Fuck off."
"I'm not a liar."
"You told Lajos and Istvan they'd be safe ..."
"No, I didn't."
"... you told Joe he'd be safe ..."
"No, I didn't."
"People just die and all you care about is yourself. You are an utter bastard and I don't believe you and you can fuck off and die."
"Fuck is not an appropriate word to use in the presence of the gods," said Little Weed.
"Oh ... fuck off," said Stella.
"Stella," I said, trying to make eye contact. I tried to touch her shoulder. "Stella."
"Were you nice to Joe whilst you were ... shagging him?" said Stella.
"Joe's got nothing to do with this," I said.
"Joe's dead. Dead. Do you know what the word means? This isn't some sort of ... game where you can go back and erase your mistakes."
"Stella, listen to me. I'm going to make you a promise. I promise that I will get you out of here and back to Earth alive. If I have to risk myself doing it, so be it. I'll put you first. I promise."
Stella snorted. "Cross your heart and hope to die?" she said, caustically. "At least your evil twin wasn't a hypocrite."
I looked her straight in the eye and let all the cynicism drain from my face. I tried to look like the authentic "me". "Cross my heart," I said, "and hope to die."
"Apologise," said Stella. She was calming down. "Apologise for letting those people die and not giving a damn."
I bit my lip. "I apologise," I said.
11. Tomb raiding
I consulted Father's map. The easiest way to the control machine would have been to go out of the Tomb of Qerasija, through two tombs labeled "Enesidaone" and "Pajawone" and into the central tomb "Diwija". Five minutes at a run. Right now we were stuck in a side passage that lead to a tomb called "Areja".
"Also known as Ares." I turned to Little Weed. "What's likely to be in there?"
"I do not know," said Little Weed.
"Will there be warriors like you?"
"I do not know."
I let myself hang by my fingertips before letting go. I did a forward roll as I hit the floor to minimise the impact of the fall. There was no fog in the tomb of Areja and no sign of dog things. It was as quiet as the grave.
I could see from my Maglight that the tomb was much bigger than the previous one.
"Are you OK?" called Stella from above.
"Stay there with Little Weed," I said.
I shone the torch at the floor. It showed signs of erosion. In one place there was a hole, and below the hole, darkness. It was going to be like crossing a melting pond.
I could see a solid block about twenty feet away. I wondered if the low gravity would allow me to reach it.
I backed up a few steps, did a short run up and jumped. I landed a few inches short and my feet went through the ice. I grabbed the lip of the block with my fingertips. A large section of floor fell away into the abyss below, but the block held. I hauled myself up onto it.
Looking ahead I could see what looked like a large portico or altar, and in front of it a large pile of shining objects. I frowned. The pile seemed to be a pile of bones, human bones. The skulls were wearing helmets, and the ribs were encased in leather armour. Skeletal hands grasped bronze swords and wooden shields.
"What is that?" called Stella.
"Looks like someone's lunch to me," I said.
Off to my right was an even more amazing object. A giant ice statue, helmeted, with sword drawn. It had the archaic features of a Trojan warrior. It had probably been impressive before it got moth eaten. One leg was almost sublimed away. I mentally measured the distance between the head of the statue and Stella's perch. Maybe not.
I reasoned that the floor under the pile of bones must be fairly solid and took a running jump. I overestimated it and crashed into the pile. It hurt. Some bones and I clattered to the ground but I was safe.
I wondered if I'd committed sacrilege yet.
The map had suggested that the best way out was through the doors at the back of the tomb. I could see another throne, and another seated corpse. At its feet, chained skeletons with bronze collars posed on one knee with heads bowed. The spoils of war.
I ran around to the side and to the foot of the giant statue. I had to get Stella and Little Weed, and since nobody had thoughtfully provided a zip line to whisk them over the hole in the floor, I had another plan. I began to climb the statue. Finally I sat astride its shoulders with my gloved hands grasping its nose.
"What are you doing, Lara?" asked Stella.
"Practising my bouldering technique," I said.
I looked at the distance between the statue foot and Stella's wall. If I misjudged it, I'd be going for a swift trip to oblivion below the tomb. What the hell, I thought, and began to rock the statue backwards and forwards.
There was a creaking and cracking sound and the statue teetered in the wrong direction. I carefully inched round and leaned out in my best wind surfer pose, clinging onto the nose piece of the helmet. Dry ice is tough stuff. There was a bang from below and a cloud of flying fragments as the good leg cracked.
The statue fell slowly enough for me to get onto the top side of it. The head hit the wall below Stella with a crunch and stuck there. The knees remained jammed near the plinth.
I grinned up at Stella. "Good, eh?" I said.
"You're a lunatic," said Stella, as Little Weed prepared to hand her down.
As we inched sheepishly past the seated body of the god, Stella whispered "How come you can crash around in a tomb and demolish a statue and nothing happens, whilst all I had to do was touch a hand?"
I laughed. "Swings and roundabouts," I said. Normally it was the other way around. All my competitors seemed to make their way through tombs ahead of me without a scratch, while I was left to negotiate wild animals and traps.
"The Tomb of Posedaone," I read. "So that would Poseidon, presumably? Let's hope that they don't belong to literal school of architecture."
"What do you mean?" said Stella.
"Oh - you know. Temples of Midas that turn you to gold. Temples of Thor that hit you with lightning and a giant hammer. Temples of Damocles that have suspended swords of Damocles ready to fall on you."
"So you're expecting sea and sea monsters?"
"Not at this temperature."
We walked through the tomb doorway to be confronted by a golden lake. There was no dry floor.
"This is a problem," said Little Weed. "Is there no way around?"
"Not according to this map," I said. "What's your problem? You've just been running around in a vacuum.
A bit of liquid won't hurt you."
"Your environment suits are resistant to chlorine," said Little Weed. "My metal components are not."
Stella and I looked at each other and then at the golden lake.
"Chlorine?" said Stella. "Does he mean chlorinated? I thought chlorine was a green gas."
The "water" level had obviously dropped since the lake was first built, leaving a sloping beach of darkish material. I walked gingerly down it. The liquid was clear and I could see that, at the shore at least, it was no deeper than waist deep. I put a hand into it and got a momentary chill through my glove. It slopped heavily, a little like mercury. I've come across lakes of unidentifiable green or red liquid in various places, and they are generally toxic.
"I wonder how much weight that digger can take before it tips over?" I mused, thinking of the "Cyberman" that I had hoisted up by the head.
"Sorry?" said Stella, who had come down to the lake edge.
"What's the gravity of Mars?"
"About two fifths of Earth."
"So ... even if Little Weed weighed four times as much as a man ... let's try something."
In the end, we lifted him in an "all fours" stance, with his legs and arms straight. Stella put his feet on her shoulders, and I put his hands on mind. We looked like an unlikely acrobatic troupe. Stella held my torso for added stability and I had Little Weed's spear to test the lake bed before us. We shuffled down the beach into the lake.
"Cold," said Stella, as the liquid licked around her thighs.
"Do not spray me," said Little Weed.
"Concentrate," I said.
As we waded across the lake in a stately fashion, I wondered if we were going to come across any pot holes. I wondered if the tomb had guardians.
There was a promontory with a bijou, columned temple on it. Inside was the obligatory seated figure. He looked a bit moth-eaten, as if the sea air didn't agree with him. His crown was green and blistered and his hair and skin were very white.
"Nearly there," I was saying, when something sweeping along the lake bed knocked Stella off her feet.
Little Weed splashed legs first into the lake. He didn't cry out, but ran rapidly for the far shore. There he clambered onto dry land and started to brush his legs with handfuls of dry ice dust.
I pulled Stella to the surface - she was spluttering even though she was completely isolated from the liquid - and pushed her after Little Weed.
The thing had to be a another machine. I could a glimpse of it sliding through the water towards Stella. It swam like a giant eel. "Oi!" I shouted and started banging the surface of the lake with the flat of Little Weed's spear. "Oi!" It occurred to me that if the slightest damage was caused to either of our disco outfits then we were in for a most unpleasant death.
The eel swept past Stella and turned in a large arc just under the surface of the lake, allowing Stella to reach the bank and climb to safety. I deduced that it would probably sweep past me, a victim of its own momentum in the dense liquid. I lowered the spear tip under the surface and stepped aside at the last moment. As the eel passed me I dug the spear tip into its side and hung on. The eel spilt open like a grilled sausage from neck to tail. It thrashed a bit, and I left it to its death throes.
"That was pathetically easy," I said to Stella as I waded towards her.
"You're enjoying this," said Stella.
"I'm in my element."
"Well ... you're certainly in an element."
"Stella! Was that a joke?"
Unfortunately the mood of levity was spoilt a moment later when we discovered that Little Weed could no longer walk.
The entrance to the Tomb of Diwija was a long flight of glittering stairs. On each side were niches containing statues. They faced the massive doorway at the top of the stairs with expressions of dread and awe.
"I wish I had a camera," said Stella, who was holding Little Weed's feet.
"These are the lesser gods paying obeisance to the great Diwija," said Little Weed.
"Who exactly is the great Diwija?" I said. "Zeus?"
"No, no," said Stella, excitedly. "Don't you see how amazing this is? This is a matriarchal pantheon."
"Diwija is the Queen of the Gods," said Little Weed.
"Oh ... goodie," I said.
The doors were proof, if we needed proof, what an amazing building material dry ice was. They remained as pristine as the day that they had been made. The surfaces were covered with pictures, subtly coloured with paint.
"Diwija resembles Demeter," said Stella, breathlessly. "There's the abduction of Kore-Persephone." She pointed at a maiden being carried below the earth by a man on a chariot. Then she indicated a row of regal figures. "There's Selene - the Moon, and Helios - the Sun. Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes. It's like a map of the solar system. But who is this last god, seated by Demeter?"
"That is Diwo, brother and husband of Diwija," said Little Weed. "It was Diwo and Diwija that fought.
They fought the war."
Stella blinked a few times. "So ... If I remember my Linear B correctly, Diwo is generally identified with Zeus, the King of the Olympian Gods. But in this map, Diwo is represented as the ruler of ur-Earth. I don't quite understand."
I suddenly realised the significance of what we were looking at. I started laughing. "Diwo and ur-Earth may have lost the war," I said, "but they won the peace. The survivors of Diwo's army ensured that the Earth ended up worshipping male gods. Not Diwija. Our fathers that art in heaven, and all that."
"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," observed Little Weed.
At that moment there was a sound of horns blowing. They were rough, harsh sounding horns. The giant doors began to swing open, and we pulled Little Weed out of the way. Inside the dry ice doors were stone doors. These too started to open inwards.
The sight inside the tomb rendered us silent except for Little Weed who said "The Thesmophoria festival."
Behind us was a howling of wolves. The Thirsty Ones had tracked us down. The first one began to bound up the giant staircase.
12. Sibling rivalry.
Little Weed had his spear ready, and he was seated at the top of the stairs. The dog thing hesitated. I up-ended my backpack on the floor. "Take these," I said to Stella throwing her the tube of blue soap and the chess-encrusted Bowie knife. "Stay by Little Weed. I just need a few seconds."
I grabbed up the thin rope with the grappling hook and ran into the tomb.
The architecture defied belief. There was a central temple floating in mid air near the ceiling. All around were a series of glittering white platforms and below a limitless drop.
Standing on the platforms were a series of what looked like small girls, all dressed in bright yellow robes like Hare Krishnas. They were chanting and raising their hands to the airborne temple, from which rays of light were streaming. Something was rising from below - a chariot pulled by mechanical prancing horses.
Standing in the chariot was the dark equivalent of a "Cyberman" and a pale girl in flowing robes with the head of a horse.
I was too busy to formulate a reaction to all of this. Weird shit happens. I swung the grappling hook around a few and flung it at the nearest platform. Logically, it was a smooth stone block and the hook shouldn't have caught but it did. That did surprise me. I pulled on the rope and it was firm, so I tied it off around a pillar.
Back at base, Little Weed had somehow managed to skewer a number of the dog things and there was a temporary lull.
"Can you make you way along the rope hand over hand, with Stella seated in your lap?" I said to Little Weed. "I want you in a safe place whilst I go after this Doomday device."
Eventually we were atop the marble platform. I'd untied the rope from the pillar and swung underneath the platform like Tarzan, before hauling myself up hand over hand.
"It's an illusion," said Stella, feeling the ground with her gloves. "The surface looks smooth but it feels rough and pot-holed."
I was wondering if the dog things could leap from the doorway to the platform, when one of them tried it.
It fell short with a yelp. I was about to observe that we seemed to be safe when there was a crash from below. The dog thing had landed on an invisible surface and appeared to be running around above the abyss. It ran limping into the centre of the space, and through the rising chariot with its two occupants.
"The whole thing is a hologram, or something," said Stella.
"Let's hope so," I said hurling the grappling hook at one of the saffron robed children on the next platform up. The hook sailed through her and embedded itself in the illusory stone surface. "I'm going up. You two stay here and keep out of trouble."
All of the chanting children had horse faces, like the figure in the chariot. Their song sounded like oriental plainchant. I was soon at the bottom step of the illuminated temple. The whole thing was an illusion, as Stella said, but I'd no doubt that there was a real drop below me.
I stepped into the circle of columns, and there was Diwija in all her glory, seated on an enormous throne of chalcedony. She was many breasted, with cornucopia in one hand and sheath of corn in the other. She had a thick mane of lustrous black hair, tied into heavy platted ringlets with a centre parting, and the face of a horse. She opened her teeth and whinnied, and then began to declaim a chant of welcome to her daughter, a basso counterpart to the chanting. Above her head I could see a clear skylight, and the inappropriately modern Martian sky, dusted with speeding clouds of ice and dust. Near the foot of the throne, surrounded by ghostly supplicants and seemingly half embedded in the floor, was a black object that looked like a chuck of the control deck from the space ship. There were lights flickering on it.
I stepped forward and my foot went through the floor, tipping me onto my face. At the same moment I heard Stella yelp from below.
"Lara!" she yelled. "Save me!" There was a screaming noise.
I scrambled to my feet. I had the reprogramming box in my hand, ready to insert. Father had briefed me on the ship. "It's only the control panel. The real device is in orbit near the moon Phobos," he'd said. "It is gathering sunlight for its assault on Earth. I don't know how long you have, but you must insert the new program into the control panel to change its instructions. It will be the only thing that looks mobile, scarred and out of place in the Tomb of Diwija. Little Weed will show you." The control panel was only a few yards away, but across a hidden surface of unknown treachery. At the same time I remembered my promise to Stella. I ought to go and look. I hesitated.
Suddenly the sky light above my head began to darken. A dust storm was beginning to block out the weak sunlight. I imagined the whole surface of Olympus Mons being plunged into darkness. The temple and Diwija winked out like a broken movie and all the chanting fell silent. All that was left was the light from my Maglight and the glimmer from Little Weed's headlights from below. There was a gap between me and the control panel, which was teetering on the very edge of the rocky summit.
I made a decision and threw myself backward to peer over the edge. Little Weed and Stella were no longer on a marble platform, but in the pinnacle of a rocky pillar. The dog things had climbed up from the rocky floor and Little Weed had been trying to fight them off, but now the dog things seemed dazed. Little Weed took advantage of their immobility. He grabbed two from his sitting position and crushed them against his chest. For a second the trio rocked on the edge. Then they fell. All three hit the floor of the cave and there was an explosion and a burst of quickly doused flames. The whole cave reverberated and rang with the explosion.
I heard a scraping sound from behind me and saw the control panel leaning over. It fell and hit the rocks far below with another booming roar.
I'd totally muffed it. The Doomsday machine was on its way to Earth.
There was nothing to do but leave. Everything had stopped, including the Thirsty Ones who were lying around in attitudes of sleep, twitching and dreaming bloody dreams. Perhaps the designers of the tombs had decided that no robber would venture up the slopes of Olympus Mons at night or in a dust storm.
Just how bad the storm was became apparent when we emerged into the Soviet base. I had to dog the hatch shut and rebury the site in almost pitch blackness. I'd leave the dead to carry on their memorials in peace.
There was plenty of light and heat in the base on Farkas Bertalan Ut., however. We stood in the doorway looking at Lajos and Istvan's stuff. One of them had been a Manchester United fan. They had Doom on their computer and Oasis on their CD player.
"I'm sorry about them," I said, eventually. "They were very young, weren't they?"
"It wasn't your fault," said Stella. "At least you kept your promise to me. Seems a bit pointless now, though."
"I'm not beaten yet," I said, slapping her on the shoulder. "Find a radio and send a message to mission control. Maybe if we warn them, they can stop the Doomsday machine in space. Nuke it or something like that. If you have any trouble tell them we're going outside to spell out 'Hello America' in big rocks on the mountainside."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm off out of here to have a word with Father. Maybe he can help."
I had my map and my torch. Semper fi, as the Romans say. I struggled out into the storm and over to the alien ship.
"Hello?" I said as the hatch shut behind me. "Anyone home?" I took the lift down to Father's drawing room.
"Lara!" he said, putting down his pipe and coming forward with arms half out-stretched. "How did it go?"
I sighed and swigged some whiskey from the bottle. "Not terribly well," I said.
"You found the control panel?"
"Yup. In the tomb of Diwija as you predicted. The tomb defenses were so busy fighting your warriors that it got broken before I could get near it. That's why I'm here. I thought maybe there was another way of stopping it ..."
Father had been glaring at me during this speech and now he exploded. "You blithering idiot!" he shouted. "If I could have done anything from this ship, don't you think I would have?"
I felt calm. "So that's it," I said taking another swig. "Bye bye Earth."
I frowned and put down the bottle. Father's outline was shimmering and he was changing expression. I took a step back.
"It's not Earth that you've doomed," he said. "It's ur-Earth."
I smiled. "I thought you were behaving oddly when we got back," I said. "The other Lara must have infiltrated the ship's systems somehow. Including you."
"I'd launch this ship after your Doomsday device if I could," said Father, grasping me by the throat. His breath smelt of peppermints. "Instead I'm going to dismember you."
"I'm the designated pilot," I croaked.
Father loosened his grip. "That's right," he said. "Why? Are you offering to help?"
"Let me go," I said.
Father stared at me. "All right," he said.
"Ship?" I said. The lights dimmed for a moment and I wondered why I hadn't tried this before. Plain dumb, I guess. "Ship, shut all systems down immediately."
Father's cry was lost as all the lights went off for the last time, including his. The ship was dead.
It turned out that we already had a lift home. There was something like a big lunar lander parked outside the dome. We shut the curtains before we left and turned off the gas. The semi-automated docking with the unmanned Soviet ship in orbit and the journey home were interesting, but not interesting enough for me to describe it.
"The Black Demeter was portrayed with the head and mane of a horse on the body of a woman," said the book that I was browsing through, some days after our crash-landing. "In the Ascent or Anodos, Persephone's reappearance with Hades was reenacted in a springtime ceremony. Saffron was used to dye the clothes of young girl acolytes who were considered to be symbolically dead."
"Weirdos," I said out loud.
"Miss?" said Winston.
"How is that wrist? Are you recovering from your plunge?"
"I'm just relieved that I had freshly chlorinated the pool."
"What do you think of my new acquisition?" I said indicating the "Cyberman" head that I had recovered from the lawn next to the crater. I'd placed it on a plinth in the trophy room.
"Most evocative, Miss."
It was fortunate that I wasn't wanted in the Former Soviet Union, and that the British Ambassador was a mate. The Russians had been kind enough to let me ring him from the Baykonur Cosmodrome. The deal was our silence in exchange for their cooperation.
Stella's boyfriend had rolled up in a Renault to collect her. He was an archaeologist too. I guessed I'd hear from her again, if only trying to talk through her post-traumatic stress.
Nothing had been reported from the heavens. I didn't know if ur-Earth had been destroyed or simply scoured clean again. There had been no strange meteorite storms or reports of odd solar activity.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," I said, adding coal from the scuttle to the fire.
"Indeed, Miss," said Winston. "And Miss?"
"Should you encounter your father again, could you pass on my regards?"
I smiled and looked into the flames. "Naturally," I said.