Interlude; “Lara”

 


One of the things that I used to do before turning in for the night at the Golden Pyramid of Aea was to do the rounds checking on my babies.

First and most important were my twin sons, Nas and Das.

I was slightly surprised at how much they liked the Golden Pyramid, given that their first experience of it had been a fight to the death against a nearly re-awakened giant mutant which the security systems had birthed from its incubator egg. They liked the darkness, the humidity, the red pulsing walls and the sound of the giant heartbeat. Given the choice between their room in my villa at Gagri on the Black Sea shore and an orifice-like cave in the Pyramid they always chose the latter. I didn't know if it was a child thing or an Atlantean bloodline thing, but I thought it was cute, if faintly weird.

I crept into their "room" and looked down on them curled on the organic excrescences that served as "beds". Das had a thumb in his mouth and his toy duck hugged tightly to his face, a bijou version of his father Tihocan, whilst Nas was smiling in his dreams, his little fists clenched and his legs jerking occasionally in his sleep, no doubt dreaming of being a wolf killing lambs, the spit of his Uncle Qualopec.

I kissed each on the lips saying "Good night, sweet Princes," and smoothed their baby hair with my fingers. My love knew no bounds.

Next I made the rounds of the incubators, where my first attempts at creating some Atlantean soldiers were cooking, their neurones being knitted together by swarms of miniature arachnobots. Many were nearly ready. I pressed my nose against the almost opaque shell of one giant green egg to gaze lovingly at a centaur, one hand resting on the thick, throbbing blood vessel feeding the neonate. The vessel itself rose and fell slightly with the peristatic movement of fluids inside it, held into a curved shape by a network of veins and membranes and looking for all the world like the wing of a purple moth beating in slow motion. There was a placental patch on the nursery wall, siphoning off the blood of the Pyramid itself, and I could tell merely by touching it, by feeling the beat and the temperature and by examining the colour that all was well with this particular infant. My fingers stroked the curved, firm surface of the egg and the muscular warm hardness of the blood vessels. I kissed the sinewy surfaces and I rubbed my body against them like a small dog against a leg.

"You are so beautiful," I said to the floating centaur, a catch in my throat. So many years of struggle had brought us to this moment and I was filled with such an intense and deep maternal pride that it made my want to cry just standing there.

Last on my rounds was the biggest experiment of them all, my attempt to recreate the bizarre prehistoric megafauna that had attacked us when we first arrived. I hadn't designed it – Tihocan, who had taken over the Pyramid after my imprisonment (to replace his original Workshop that had been swallowed by the waves) had been working on all sorts of weird creations. I'd dabbled with cloning the T. Rex, for example, but my brother seemed to have gone the whole hog and had been rampaging through the genetic library like a kid in a candy shop.

This giant "thing" – its skeleton revealed it to have the face of a panda, the neck of a horse, the arms and shoulders of a massive ape, the front claws of an anteater and the short rear legs of… well, I'm not sure what, exactly – was almost identical to our former attacker, the monster nicknamed "The Wolf" by the twins. The latest incarnation had been named "Adam" but the twins, with cheerful irreverence, had renamed it "Mr. Torso".

I gazed up at the gargantuan egg suspended from the wall of one of the laval vents inside the Pyramid and I confess I felt less like giving this particular baby a hug. Scientifically I was interested in what Tihocan had intended for this … "monstrosity" seems a bit harsh … but emotionally I can't say I was feeling the love. Looking at its panda head with tufts of blonde hair spurting from the cranium, and at its as yet barely fleshed horse's neck, grotesquely long without the sheath of muscle and skin, I felt vaguely sorry for Mr. Torso.

"You ain't pretty," I said, patting the incubator.

Finally I lay down in my own chamber within earshot of the boys, gently rocked by the Atalntean equivalent of a water bath, blood red and blood warm. It was like sleeping on the belly of a giant man, using his flaccid penis as a pillow.

Then, that last night, I was suddenly awakened by the alarm, a noise that sounded like a baby wail played on a chorus of trumpets. The floors and walls had begun to pulse with subtle changes of hue – gold-speckled black to green-veined blood to metal-seamed clot, and so on.

I dashed to the boys, meeting them halfway.

I crouched down.

"Now then, my Princes. What did we practice for this?"

Nas was waving a stick around. "Fight, fight, fight!" he said, with a huge grin.

"No-o. Das?"

"We go to the emergency train, Mama Jackie," said Das, solemnly.

"Aw! No fair!" protested Nas.

"And then what?" I said, pulling them close to me.

"We go to the villa and wait."

"And Nas? Nas! Stop pouting."

"What?"

"I expect you to escort your brother to safety and to guard him. If anything tries to stop you, you are welcome to kill it."

Nas calmed down. "Yes, Mama Jackie."

I gave them the biggest kiss and hug that I could manage. "I love you both very much," I said, squeezing them, "and I'll see you when this is all over."

I shooed them to the hematoaulic elevator that lead down to the rail track which headed straight for the mainland, deep under the rock of the seabed.

"Byeeee!" they called, waving furiously.

"Bye!" I echoed, blowing a kiss. Then I turned to the matter in hand, heading for one of the Golden Pyramid's many control rooms.

Magnesian, my technician, possibly the oldest living person on the planet, was calmly pushing nipple-like buttons and tweaking various fleshy knobs. He been almost completely desiccated when we had first awoken him and now he looked more like a sultana.

"Your Magnificence," he croaked. "To everyone's astonishment one of Your Majesty's former employees has gone mad and wants to kill Your Majesty. Personally I'm agape."

"Stop being a smart aleck," I said. "Are the Eyes of Iridis working? Can we seen who it is?"

The Eyes of Iridis were a bioelectronic system that I had caused to sprout all over the Golden Pyramid, feeding back to what the Pyramid had for a brain and accessible to us.

Magnesian poked a fleshy control and a picture appeared on the screen of the aetheroscope.

"That's outside in the Mines isn't it?" I said, peering.

"I believe so, Your Highness, and those bodies lying about are your Most Excellent Mercenary Guards. Worth every obol in My Humble Opinion."

I could see a gunfight going on between the black rocks. In the middle distance I could see one of those rivers of that rare, runny, copper-tainted mud lava that flow through the bowels of the Pyramid and then, cartwheeling, a silhouette, guns blazing, ponytail flying.

I felt an immediate jolt of fear mixed with irritation. "By the impacted bowels of the Underworld!" I said. "It's that Croft woman again."

"I thought you'd sacked her, You Majesty?"

"So did I. Over a cliff."

"Shall I let her in for a good dressing down by senior management?"

"No, you will not bloody let her in. Set all the systems to … whatever the equivalent of red alert is."

"Yes, My Queen. It's 'gold' alert, I believe."

"Whatever – gold, plutonium, ginger. Throw the whole Periodic Table at her."

Lara had killed all the humans, most of them former employees of Mauro Nero under the command of Larson Conway, rather optimistically hired by me as bodyguards. They weren't having much luck staying alive.

I watched Lara prowling around outside an entrance to the Golden Pyramid. She searched all of the bodies and then started clambering around on the protuberances that dotted the outer surface of the structure.

"Magnesian, assuming she gets that door open, what's on the other side?"

"One of the Hive Hatcheries, Your Ingeniousness. Filled with Atlantean soldiers of various sorts."

"Set up some sort of motion sensor. Automatically hatch anything that she goes near and give them the instruction 'Kill, kill, kill'."

"'Kill'?" said Magnesian. "Wouldn't 'run, run, run away' be more appropriate?"

"Look - she's only one small wee human," I said, demonstrating with my fingers how tiny Lara Croft was in the cosmic scheme of things, my voice breaking with exasperation.

"Vicious though, Your Majesty, with big guns and knives and … hand grenades. And she probably bites."

"Oh for the Gods' sake just get something to lop her head off, Magnesian!"

"Very good, Sire."

I guess I've described at great length elsewhere how I fell about Lara Croft, and although it seems a bit denial-ish of me to order her killed, the truth was that I had a massive girlcrush on her. Half of me wanted her to knock down all my defences and leave me quivering and naked, bound and defeated at her feet, unable to deny her even one of her filthy desires. I even wondered if my previous attempts to have her shot were just an attention seeking device. If only, instead of destroyed me she'd just … fuck me. I had a lovely vision of us ruling the world, two goddesses in love.

"Darling Lara," I fantasised about saying to her. "Why blow my brains out when you can just … blow my brains out?"

However, when Lara managed to pierce my outer defences – somehow she got my front door open as I'd known she would - and started murdering everything in sight, I realised that my fond rose-coloured dreams were about to turn blood-stained.

"Keep her busy," I said to Magnesian. "I'm tooling up."

"If Your Ladyship would permit it, I have a cunning plan," said Magnesian.

"What is it – surrender?"

"Not yet, My Queen." And when he told me I had to smile and give him the go ahead.

I had a number of weapons at my disposal. First there were my beloved wings, the modern versions, fully detachable. I kept copies of them in special incubator tubes wherever I might be staying and when they were decanted, I could place them on my back, and special tendrils crept into special cloacae near my shoulder blades (causing me to shudder and gasp with pleasure). When it was all over there they were, two blood-red and magnificent batwings with a twelve foot span. I didn't have the complete body armour that I developed afterwards, but I did have a prototype – a thin sheet of invisible cartilage that covered much of my skin, and which could help me to survive bullets, fire and even boiling water for at least a short time. Finally I had my biochemically-fed fireball-throwing mutant, which wrapped itself around my forearm and responded to instruction from my thoughts.

I strapped all of this on, straightened my business skirt and my business blouse, touched up my makeup, and then went back to the control room to see how things were going in the war against the terror.

"This might be interesting," said Magnesian.

His cunning plan had been to edge Lara out of "our" areas of the Golden Pyramid and into as yet unexplored regions "belonging" to Tihocan. None of us, not even me, had wanted to investigate too closely in case the whole thing was a Tihocan trap designed to destroy me lest I ever escape from my prison and return.

"How come we can see her?"

"One can only support that your order to seed the inside of the Pyramid with Eyes worked even better than we hoped, Your Magnificence. Nobody is more astonished than myself."

"That chamber she is about to enter … what is it?"

"I'm always sceptical about Atlantean technology," said Magnesian, "but look at this …"

I gazed at the new chamber. A furious activity was going on. It looked as if a million arachnobots were weaving a doll or a golem or an image, the laying down of the individual threads a blur, the object at the centre obscured by motion.

I realised, with a dawning amusement, that the arachnobots were attempting to make a clone, a copy, a simile of Lara Croft herself.

I watched Lara outside the door of the chamber, hesitating.

"Go on, go on, go on," I found myself whispering at the aetheroscope screen.

She felt around the door jam and then backtracked up the corridor looking for a switch or a block of stone to push.

"Is it unlocked?" I said.

"Yes, Your Ladyship. She just has to push it open."

Lara reached rounded in her backpack and produced a grenade. She placed it on the ground and then run away. The door disintegrated.

Inside the room the arachnobots scattered – or at least I assume they scattered – leaving the more or less finished Atlantean copy of Lara standing in the room. There was a moment's silence and then it ran to the far side of the chamber, pushing against an identical door to the one that Lara had just destroyed.

I watched it carefully. It was holding its head and ever now and again slapping the side, as if it was trying to clear and ear of water. Something was happening. It was as if a download of information was going on and it didn't look a very comfortable process.

Lara, meanwhile, was stealthing towards the entrance, pistols drawn. The moment she stepped over the threshold the At-Lara spun and around and adopted the exact same pose. We could see miniature fireball throwers, mimics of Lara's pistols, forming out of its hands.

"Wow," I said. "Neato."

"Whatever Your Majesty says."

"You've been poking around the Golden Pyramid for a few weeks now. Where are the instructions for this process stored?"

"In a memory falx made of dura matter, like the rest of it."

"And is there a backup?" I suddenly had an uneasy feeling that Lara might be about to decerebrate the Pyramid once and for all.

Magnesian chuckled, the first and last time I ever heard him do that. He pulled up a schematic which appeared on a flat surface of wall space, pixilated with waving villi like those pin boards that produce a contour of a face.

"The answer, Your Majesty, is yes and no. This is the – forgive the modern names – the Nile Delta east of Alexandria and this is Lake Burullus. Hundreds of feet below the Mediterranean shore is a large complex, the remains of the Workshop of the late Lord Tihocan, Ruler of the Territory of the East. That place is now combined with … well the map gives it no name."

"And?" I said, rubbing some patience into my forehead with a finger. "So what?"

"There are two chambers, one here in the Pyramid, and one somewhere in the unnamed area, both labelled the Pineal Transplants … and if I understand it correctly, there is your backup."

I gave him a long look. "Good. So … what was so amusing about that exposition?"

Magnesian shrugged. "There are no instructions as to how to access this bizarre Mediterranean underworld, nor who built it, nor if it is working, nor …"

I blew exasperation out through my lips. "Oh be quiet, Magnesian. You are such a 'no man'."

"Yes, Your Glowing Positivity."

"And stick to Your Highness from now on. No more making up hilarious titles. Not until the Croft woman has gone at least."

"Your command is my only wish, Your Highness."

We turned back to the aetheroscope screen just in time to see Lara fire at the At-Lara. Simultaneously the latter fired back, fireballs streaking across the chamber. Lara did one of her trademarked sideways jumps, hells over head, and the At-Lara copied her. Both set of missiles missed their targets.

Lara was thinking – I could almost sense it. She holstered her guns and so did At-Lara. Lara took one step forward, one step back – copied. Then she performed what I can only describe as a hokey cokey, and got an instant dance partner. Finally, she walked forward and touched noses with the At-Lara.

"Me, I presume?" she started to say, but the At-Lara interrupted her with a large honking sound.

"Quack quack here."

"Honk honk honk."

"Quack quack there."

"Honk honk honk."

The chamber was filled with a cacophony of sound as Lara tried singing "Here a quack, there a quack, everywhere a quack quack" over the top of the noises that the At-Lara was making. They both stopped together with the sounds dissipating into echoes and screeches.

With that, Lara ignored the At-Lara and strode to the far door. She pulled it open and stepped though into the corridor. The At-Lara, trying to copy, tripped over the remains of the entrance and lay still.

It was my turn to laugh. "What was the point of that?" I said.

"Maybe when completed, the copy becomes autonomous," suggested Magnesian.

"I'll have a look at the blueprints later. For now … tell me she's not heading for the Scion Room."

"That would be inaccurate, Your Highness."

I took him by the shoulders. "I'm going to face her now, my good old servant. Keep things going as best you can while I'm gone. If the Croft woman manages cause some kind of explosion, or - the Gods forbid - an eruption, shut all the doors and vents and tunnels and try to direct the blasts and the lava streams down into the Mines, under the sea. I don't want my future subjects hurt because of some little disagreement between Her Ladyship and myself."

Magnesian was as desiccated as an old smoked ham left in an airing cupboard, but his eyes met mine and I swear there was a trace of moisture. With great self-control I managed to blink my own eyes dry.

"Very good, Your Royal Majesty, Granddaughter of the Lord of the Sea, Daughter of Atlas, Ruler of the Territories of the West, once and future Queen."

And so, the denouement.

I was standing in the shadows as Lara fell through a ceiling panel and landed in a clatter of fragments.

"Fuck," she said.

She took a moment to slap a bandage on herself where she'd been cut and then straightened. She listened for a moment and then peered around the corner.

"Ah ha!"

Her eyes lit up in what I can only assume was a look of triumphant greed.

She walked up to the pedestal where the Scion was seated and reached out for it … and it was then I realised just how much Atlantean bloodline she much have left in her, for something unexpected was activated, something I'd never seen before.

It was a 'movie' of my trial and imprisonment left, no doubt, by my kind brother Tihocan, ensuring that my name would by blackened for generations of Atlanteans. The images were projected in mid air and I was aghast at how young we all looked, standing stiffly on the Execution Platform in the long gone Atzlan Confederacy.

I began to burn with embarrassment. It was as if someone had got out the baby photos to embarrass me in front of my new girlfriend.

"We condemn you, Natla of Atlantis, for your crimes. For your flagrant misuse of your powers," I watched Qualopec saying, saying the words that had been agreed for my show trial, buying time until he could come back to free me, or at least that's what he'd said.

So why hadn't he? He had been so very ill but … As I squirmed, I found myself thinking "So much for my big brave brother. You coward! You …you langouring wimp!"

My only excuse is that fear and self-loathing can rob us of our better judgement

The 'movie' clip finished, and I saw Lara stagger. The look on her face, the realisation that I had been a Ruler of Atlantis. She stood for a long time, rubbing her chin, her eyes a thousand yard stare. She gazed across the abyss at Mr. Torso's egg.

I straightened my robes and adjusted my crown. I clasped my hands to stop them shaking. It was my duty to explain. What use was the Scion to her? Surely she would see? The human race had to take one small step back to make that massive leap forward.

"Be brave, daughter of Atlantis."

I took a deep breath and stepped from the shadows, my wings semi-unfurled, my chin up, a devil-may-care smile on my lips.

"Back again?" I said, politely.