Take Your Protein Pills And Put Your Helmet On
It was a week or two after my enforced visit to the Antarctic Peninsula. I had toyed with the idea of ringing the Croft Mansion ... but then I remembered it had burned down. I was kind of reluctant to contact Lara. I decided that I'd wait. For now.
I gave out the story that I'd gone 'walkabout' in the Learjet on a whim, and attributed the battered aspect of the plane to my inept piloting "somewhere in the Rockies". My security men were livid with me - the State Governor doesn't just go on an unscheduled trip - and only the reassurances of the staff at Natla Tech had prevented a federal manhunt. I apologised, and said I wouldn't do it again. "I was suffering from post traumatic stress and needed to be alone," I told my security chief, "but here I am, safe and sound, ready to get back to work." I guess we were lucky that nobody told the newspapers.
When I gauged that the feathers of local government had ceased to be ruffled, I called a meeting of the family. I had a room in the Roundhouse swept for listening devices, and arranged for Scotch, ambrosia, juice, honey cakes, blueberry muffins and coffee to be laid out. I dressed in my most conventional light blue suit - conservative knee length skirt - and wore my most sensible shoes. I needed to be at my most calm externally to suppress the panic that lurked just underneath.
I told them of my trip to Antarctica, omitting mention of the Tihocan-shaped silhouette that I'd seen in the Dais of the Twins, as I didn't want Amanda going off message out of supposed loyalty to her father. I illustrated my briefing with images that I had hastily captured with my mobile phone.
"I believe that before this decade is out that the Olympeans may return and set foot on the earth. I intend to ask not what our country can do for them, but what they can do for us."
All three children gaped at me. Nas loosened the collar of his uniform and tilted back his chair, Das rather dazedly started to polish his glasses and Amanda looked as if an ice pick had made her ears burn.
"I have tasks for you," I said. "Important tasks."
Amanda, I told them, was to discover how many active Daises there were worldwide.
"If necessary I want the capability to shut them all down. We can't afford to miss one."
Amanda shut her mouth in order to be able to speak.
"And how do I do that, exactly?"
"Use all of the resources at hand. Spend whatever you need."
"Are you off your meds again, Mother?"
I took a calming sip of ambrosia. "No, Amanda, I'm not," I said.
Das, I continued, was to start a Natla Tech space programme, and to buy any available commercial rocket systems. With the Space Shuttle retiring just when we needed it, we had to take the initiative ourselves.
"Imagine an aircraft carrier or a battleship floating in space." I put up a photo of the wreck of the Kastor, taken from above. "Devise a way of blowing a hole through the hull. Think maybe in terms of the WW2 minisubs that the British used against German cruisers."
Das was making tiny notes on an electronic pad. "So are we talking about possible suicide missions?"
"Yeah - U.S.S. Cole," said Amanda. "Natla akbar."
"We're talking whatever it takes," I said, brushing an irritating fragment of lint from my sleeve. "Oh, and Das, my darling - get the pattern recognition people to have a look at this floor plan."
I handed him a photo of the circular object that Astarte had been holding in the giant mural.
"And what do you want me to do?" said Nas.
"Yes," I said with a slight grimace. "For you I've got what will be, potentially, the trickiest task."
I told him of what Lara Croft had told me; that as she had been escaping from the Tomb in Peru, she thought that she'd seen Qualopec come back to life.
"I want you to take a team down there and find Qualopec's body."
"Isn't that Tomb a total death trap?" said Nas, a grin beginning to spread across his face.
"So I've been told."
"And weren't we warned not to enter?"
"I was warned. You weren't."
There was a moment's silence, broken by Amanda.
"Whoopee doo, bro," she said. "Semper fi, do or die."
I snapped. "Oh shut up, Amanda, you irritating ... child!"
Nas smiled his most devil-may-care smile at his sister. "Whatever you need, Mama Jackie," he said, as she stuck her tongue out at him.
I placed a hand on his shoulder. "Needless to say I want you all to remain safe and sound."
"And what will you be doing, Mother?" said Amanda. "Topping up your tan?"
I laughed. "Governing New Mexico, if you must know, Amanda," I said, gazing out of the window. "And with any spare time I have left, arranging for our mines in Abkhazia to be re-opened." Re-opened to check your father isn't lurking somewhere inside the ruins of the Golden Pyramid of Aea, I could have added, but didn't.
I couldn't shake the suspicion that they thought I'd gone stark raving mad.
The most recent new Secretary of State created by the US Government had been in 2002 when George W. Bush created the post of Secretary of State for Homeland Security.
It had been noted that I was single-handedly propping up the hospital system of New Mexico and that my labs were still churning out valuable bluesky research in the teeth of a worldwide economic downturn. I ticked all the boxes. I was providing free health care - tick. I was driving forward the white heat of technology - tick. I was a prime candidate for a Government Of All The Talents - tick. I wasn't a Republican - tick. I was female and possibly ethnic - tick.
Therefore I wasn't completely surprised when I received a summons to see the President in Washington.
"Did you find out anything useful?" I asked Das.
Das opened his notebook. "It appears that the Luo family group possesses a unique allele that we can target."
"We won't be wiping out the whole of Kenya by mistake?"
"No," said Das, slightly defensively.
"I'm sorry, my darling," I said, kissing him. "I'm a bit nervous. What sort of disease is it?"
"Korean hemorrhagic fever. I purchased some gene technology left over from the US biological weapon program," said Das, smiling. "Irony of ironies."
"And how quickly does it work?"
"A week, maybe two."
I grimaced. Poison was so passive-aggressive and I didn't like it. I'd have rather challenged the man face to face in a duel for the throne, but the elimination of my main rival for 2102 had to be covert. The man was just too damned popular not to win a second term. "And you'll weaponize my right hand?" I said, examining my fingers like Lady Macbeth.
"They'll never detect it, Mama Jackie."
"What a clever boy."
Das blushed with pleasure, reminding me of when he'd been little and so very obsessed with his toy duck. I wondered if he still had it.
As they checked me out in security I wondered if I should have brought Jacarilla Elkhorn.
"Will the President's wife be at our meeting?" I asked a rather jugheaded Marine officer.
"FLOTUS will not be accompanying the Commander-in-Chief today," he said.
Probably for the best, I thought. We didn't really want our ladies around for this encounter.
First thing was the White House tour, a rather multicoloured affair. There was a Green Room, a Red Room, a Blue Room and a Yellow Oval Room.
"Is there a Pink Room?" I asked the West Wing staffer who was escorting me around.
"There's the Rose Garden," she said, with a twinkle. "I like your suit. Very photogenic."
"Oh, thanks." I did a little twirl and wondered if I should get her phone number. "It's an old Christian Lacroix. A bit conservative, but I thought ..."
"It's just right."
"And these flats are one of a kind, made specially for me by Cesare Paciotti."
"I am in awe," said the staffer.
"We girls have a point to make."
They gave me the two-minute warning as a photographer was taking a few practice shots; "He's on the way" was my cue to get ready. The elevator doors opened, we could see the Secret Service agents, and then the President
He strode towards me like a man about to break into a sprint. I was surprised to see that he was only a few inches shorter than me, which made a refreshing change. "Maybe I could have worn heels," I thought, slightly irrelevantly.
It's funny how it's always in the details. We'd been very clever making the toxin but there was one thing that we hadn't bothered to look up. On such small events the history of the world turns.
"Hello Ms. Natla," said the President. "Pleased to meet you at last. Thank you for making the time to see me."
He was holding out his left hand, not his right. I returned his handshake with my non-toxic fingers.
"Thank you, Mr. President," I said.
"May I call you Jacqueline?"
"May I call you Barry?" I replied, but saw the secret service man stiffen imperceptibly. "Only joking. Jacqueline is fine, and I'll stick to Mr. President if that's OK."
A slightly confused look crossed the Presidential face as he looked at me, grinning fixedly. "Shall we go through?" he said.
I perched on an upright embroidered chair whilst the President flung off his jacket and sat on a sofa, long legs splayed like some sort of pornographic insect.
"Congratulations on New Mexico," he said, with the sort of smile that men exchange when they are sharing news of a sporting or sexual conquest. I half expected him to punch me on the shoulder.
"Thank you, Mr. President."
"May we walk in the garden?"
"Where my Commander-in-Chief leads I follow," I said, provoking another of those fleeting fixed smiles. "Lead on MacDuff."
"You're a Shakespeare fan?"
"I prefer I love Lucy, Mr. President."
"That's what Macbeth says as he fights his opponent to the death. I hope we aren't going to fight, Jacqueline."
'If only you knew, Barry', I thought, but I just laughed.
The President suddenly turned conspiratorial. "I have a dreadful request of you."
"I'm supposed to have given up, but do you mind if I smoke? I hardly ever get the chance, and I can see you're a woman of the world."
I raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you sign the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act through Congress a couple of years ago?"
"I know. I'm a poor, poor sinner," he said, lighting up a rather disgusting low tar brand of cigarette. "Want one?"
"No thank you, Mr. President," I said.
He touched me on the elbow, obviously a prelude to talking turkey, even if he had a roundabout way of approaching the subject.
"Jacqueline, have you heard of John Bowden Connally, Jr.?"
"No, Mr. President."
"He was sitting in the limo in front of JFK when he was shot. Like yourself, he survived an assassination."
I wondered where he was going with this.
"However there are some other things about him that you might find quite interesting. He was elected a Democratic Governor of Texas, but despite that Nixon invited him to be the Secretary of State of the Treasury in a Republican Cabinet. He crossed the floor, as they say."
"Really?" I said, non-commitally.
"The thing is, Jacqueline, I've noticed what a good job you've been doing with health care in New Mexico. Also, my staff tell me that you have produced more original scientific patents than any other living American."
"Thank you, Mr. President. I try to make a difference."
"And that's exactly the sort of person we need in a government of all the talents."
"I'm not sure that I follow, Mr. President."
"How would you like to be the brand new Secretary of State for Science?" he said triumphantly, like a bright child angling for approval. Seeing that I was at a loss for words he ground out his cigarette under an immaculately brogue and led me back inside, grinning all the time and almost breaking out into a self-congratulatory dance step.
"You wouldn't have to move to Washington," said the President as I sipped on a lemon tea. "In fact it would be better if you stayed in New Mexico and ran your department from the Roundhouse."
"Have you heard of the line of Presidential succession? You'd be ..." he counted on his fingers "... eighteenth in line to the throne after the Vice President and myself. In the event of a Tom Clancy kind of event, you'd be in charge."
"I haven't read any Tom Clancy, Mr. President."
"I didn't catch it."
"The point is, you'd be what they call the 'designated survivor', kept at a distance from the rest of the Cabinet in case of a dreadful disaster."
I pondered what the man was telling me, wondering whether I needed to continue with my poisoning plan.
"You know," I said carefully, "that I'm not a natural born American?"
The President grinned. "Not sure I am," he said, in the sort of faux ironic tone popular on Saturday Live. "Some of my opponents claim I'm British. Besides it makes no difference. Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright were in exactly the same position. I don't really think in the event anybody is going to be harping on about a technicality, do you? Even Arnie might get to be President one day, and he's an Austrian, for God's sake."
I looked at him for a long time, wondering if there was any point in killing him. The probability was that some white supremacist would do the job for me any day soon. Besides, I could hardly force my toxic fingers down his throat. His wife had once gotten into trouble for merely touching Queen Elizabeth, so I'd probably be shot for man-handling the President.
"May I have a few days to go home and discuss it with my family?"
At the mention of the F-word a look of almost religious seriousness spread over the Presidential features.
"Of course, Jacqueline," he said, prayerfully.
The last time I had set foot in the Golden Pyramid of Aea was in 1996, unless ... and I realise this will sound confusing ... unless you count the time when I visited its remains at some undefined time in the future in a parallel universe. I'll tell the latter tale maybe at another date, but for the purposes of this narration, all you need to know was that at that second visit there had been (or will be) remains (or renovations) of the old Atlantean machinery, and that hidden in a side laboratory within a statis egg was (or will be) my Royal Brother Tihocan. I get a headache even trying to explain it.
Maybe you should ignore that last paragraph.
Needless to say I had to send a team in there partly to see what was left, but mostly to check that Tihocan wasn't lurking in there somewhere.
I was heading to my multimedia suite to watch the first team go in when I passed Amanda lying on a sofa. She was snoring, and a smouldering cannabis cigarette was about to set fire to her hair. I kicked her onto the floor.
"What the fuck?" she spluttered. I rescued the joint and doused it with a squirt from my copper houseplant syringe.
"How's the hunt for the Daises going then, my darling?" I said, icily.
Amanda was too busy yawning to answer, so I gave her a fresh spray of water to the face.
"What is your major malfunction, Mother?"
I sat down next to her. "Amanda, can I ask you a question? Do you like me when I'm angry?"
Amanda was suddenly all ears. "You were being serious about the Daises?" she said.
"What amazes me if that I have given you carte blanche to max out the Natla Tech credit card whilst carrying out the comparatively minor chore of travelling around the world looking for the portals, and yet here you are sprawled in my living room like some drug-addled bleach-blonde emo piglet."
Amanda looked as if she was going to protest at the description for a split second but then she caught my blue imperial stare.
"Right on it, Mother," she said, jumping to her feet.
"Excellent," I said, smiling as magnanimously as I could manage. "Take Bea if you like."
Amanda was dialling a number on her mobile. "Starting all the arrangements right this second."
The techs had decided to base the telemetry in the multimedia suite on something from NASA, for reasons best known to themselves. Under a large plaque that read "MOBILE TACTICAL OPERATIONS BAY (MTOB)" was a control console lined with monitor screens. There were two screens for each member of the team, the upper screens showing images from the image-intensified video cameras in their helmets whilst the lower screens were labelled things like "BIO-MONITORS" or "EEG" or "EKG".
"What's an EKG?" I wondered "and why do I need to monitor it? Electrokidneyogram? Does that tell me if they've lost bladder control?"
The trouble with techs is that they watch too many science fiction films, I concluded.
I flicked on the apparatus and immediately got eleven pictures of various troopers sitting inside a transport helicopter, most of them asleep in their webbing.
I put on my headset and opened a channel to the Mauro Nero team commander.
"Is that you, Captain ..." I hesitated slightly as I read his name "... Captain Spunkmeyer?"
"Any relation to the Otis Spunkmeyer who makes muffins?"
"I believe that trading name was chosen at random, Ma'am."
"They chose 'Spunkmeyer' at random?"
"Yes, Ma'am. It's is a source of endless amusement I'm told. Ma'am."
"Not to me, Captain."
"Nor me, Ma'am."
"What's your ETA?"
"We're inbound from Sukhumi about to touch down at the Natla Tech Mines, Ma'am. Less than a minute."
Five minutes later the eleven troopers were jogging across the cracked tarmac and I was going to write that "on the screens the mine buildings loomed in the low visibility like wrecks of freighters on the sea floor" but let's just say that it was bit foggy and the large buildings looked a bit shabby.
The troop zoomed through the Natla Mines themselves like hyperactive game players with a walkthrough, and approached the point where the Golden Pyramid's bizarre lakes of low temperature lava mud should have begun to appear.
"Where's the lava?" I said to Captain Spunkmeyer.
"It appears to have drained away, Ma'am." He pointed his helmet camera at what looked like a large hole in the ground. "I can see a tide mark, but nothing else."
I must admit I had to suppress my emotion as they approached one of the sloping golden walls of the pyramid through the cavern. Such a beautiful thing, I thought. A huge wave of nostalgia threatened to overwhelm me
"The door is open, Ma'am," said Spunkmeyer.
"Proceed with caution."
Sprinting in a skirmish line, the team advanced on the main entrance and then moved into the broad corridor. A few patches of green luminescent wall still glistened and I thought I could hear the moaning of the wind. Condensation dripped from the ceiling and pools of water covered the patterning in the floor.
"There appears to have been some sort of gunfight here, sir," said a female trooper called Epona. She fished a bullet out of the wall. "Long time ago."
"Lara Croft," I said.
"Acknowledged," said Spunkmeyer. "Advance and stay frosty."
They entered what had once been one of the egg halls. The floor and the walls were dead - no liquid flowing, no heart beat pulsing. Even what had presumably been egg shells and membrane had rotten away to unidentifiable black husks.
"It stinks," said Trooper Caballa.
"Just like the beaner home planet," said Trooper Hippos.
"Fight the power!"
I flicked a switch. "Guys ..." I said.
The only lighting was from helmet spotlights. Every time a side tunnel or an alcove was illuminated, I expected something blood red and lethal to leap out, but there was nothing. Damn you, I thought. You destroyed it all.
They had reached the centre of the pyramid, the vertical chimney that had once had a lava lake at the base and the control room at the apex. The beams from the helmet swung up and down the vertical space. The lava was gone, the guardians were dead and the automatic ledges were all extended. There appeared to be rain falling. We may as well have been in a medieval ruin.
"I think everything has long disappeared," I said.
"Ma'am," said Spunkmeyer. "We can hear no unusual sounds and there is no movement."
"I'd quarter the troop and advance up the staircases in relay. There still may be an old automatic defence system functioning somewhere. I'm guessing in places you'll need grappling hooks to abseil."
"Acknowledged," he said, and began to deploy his troop.
Something was niggling in the back of my head. When I'd visited the Pyramid in the "future", much of the infrastructure - the hematoaulic elevators for example - had been working. I guess I'm going to repair it, I thought, but it didn't seem very likely.
Suddenly I heard a shout from one of the troopers.
"I see daylight, sir," they said and I could see what looked like the sky through what looked like a pile of rubble covered with thick undergrowth.
The trooper concerned - Private Przewalski - picked his way over the rocks and parted plant tendrils with his hands.
"Jeez," he said.
He was standing halfway up a cliff, looking out at the Black Sea. The cliff was part of a blast crater, with waves crashing at the base. It looked like an excavated, but I knew that it was the aftermath of the gigantic explosion that had ripped the heart from the Golden Pyramid of Aea fifteen years earlier.
Another trooper - Falabela - joined him.
"Kinda looks bigger than the satellite photos," she said. "Nice spot for tombstoning."
"Decent rock too."
I could see Falabela grinning through Przewalski's helmet cam. She was Californian tanned, with strong white teeth. Extremely pretty.
"If you ladies finished planning your honeymoon, can we proceed?" said Spunkmeyer.
I indicated one of the "caves" in the side of the new crater, so that it was highlighted on Spunkmeyer's HUD.
"There," I said.
They began to belay down and across to the tunnel entrance, down where I suspected "Tihocanland" might be situated, on the other side of the Golden Pyramid to mine.
I don't know if you've ever seen one of those pickled corpses in cross-section, but the inside of the Golden Pyramid looked like that. I could see what had used to be the "veins", sclerotic and clogged with a red powder that had once been "blood". Instead of the heartbeat of biomechanical machinery there was silence, and where there had once been the crackle of sparks traversing axonic powerlines, there was just the odd creak. The troop had been wandering around inside a dead body.
However as they entered "Tihocanland", the whole place - if not exactly alive - began to look increasingly less desiccated.
Spunkmeyer bent down to lay his palm flat on the floor of the tunnel.
"Slightly warm," he reported. "And with some elasticity." He banged his first on the ground, and there was a faint quiver such as one might get hitting a hard party jelly with a tea spoon.
They halted in a red and green room that resembled a diseased heart chamber.
"Sound off," said Spunkmeyer, and the troopers stood in a line and shouted their names one by one. I guess it was a morale thing in unfamiliar territory. I just hoped that nothing was listening.
Tihocan had originally had his own lab, situated on the Egyptian sea shore. However the Flood had come - partly due to his meddling with volcanoes - and now the remains lay below hundreds of feet of Nile Delta silt. Thus, after my imprisonment he had, apparently, taken over part of my Golden Pyramid of Aea. If he had been around at all in the last few hundred years there would be telltale signs.
"Move out. Trakehner - point."
"Cap - are we supposed to shoot stuff?"
"Not if it has Natla Tech stamped on its forehead."
"Can I shoot Percheron?" asked Trooper Dobbin.
"On your own time," said Spunkmeyer.
"And with your own damn bullets," growled Percheron.
"I'll swing by the aisle next time I'm in Walmart," said Dobbin.
"Percheron has Natla Tech ink on his ass," said Fallabella.
"Eyes please ladies," said Spunkmeyer.
A moment later they leave the tunnel and walked into a large open space - a sort of giant body cavity studded with sewer-size arteries, tumorous outcroppings, gristly furniture and bulbous fittings the size of a car.
"That looks promising," I said into my mike.
"Take defensive position but nobody touch anything. Look and listen."
I watched the eleven TV screens as the troop looked around them.
"What's the range of your Bosch distance finder?"
"About 160 feet, depending on laser scattering," whispered Spunkmeyer.
"Give me an idea of proportions." However the chamber was taller than 160 feet and the walls were further than 160 feet.
I was scribbling on a pad in front of me, building up a rough 3D map on my computer. I could refine later.
"OK, " I said, eventually. "Two things to check out - two potential threat. Roughly east of you - I can see a light and what looks like metal. And roughly north by northwest- that giant sphere, looks like a dulled pearl, about 20 foot diameter."
"Check," murmured Spunkmeyer. "Any advice?"
"Watch the walls," I said, "and listen for flapping wings."
I reflected that a fireball would make short work of almost anything they could wear.
"No point," I said, with a stab of anxiety in my throat.
Silently, the troop was divided into three squads. Falabella, Przewalski and Percheron were left to guard the tunnel entrance. Spunkmeyer led Troopers Dobbin, Trakehner and Steed to the "metallic light", whilst Sergeant Caballa led Yearling, Epona and Hippos to the "giant pearl".
I was watching all of the screens, and it immediately became clear that the "light" was a Dais, a Dais left switched on like in the Temple Of The Chariot Of The Gods, but unlike any Dais that I'd ever seen before.
"Captain," I said to Spunkmeyer. "That is a portal. Approach with care, but if you manage nothing else, I want it destroyed with C4."
Spunkmeyer did a thumbs-up in front of his cam.
This Dais was brand new. There were no chunks of rock lying about, no vegetation, nothing to make it look as if it had been there for centuries. It was a smooth and shiny and clean as if it had just been taken out of the box. It was also twice as tall and twice as wide as the other Daises. Either something big was designed to come through, or lots of things at once. I didn't like it.
I liked even less what flanked the Dais in the concave alcove that had been built for it, contrasting strongly with the Atlantean black, green and red surrounding it, as out of place as a camera embedded in a mosaic. Seven figures, glittering with orichalcum, versions of Amboulios, Olympean warriors. Above each figure was a name - "Capaneus" and "Eteocles" and "Polynices", et cetera. They appeared as inactive as statues, but ...
"Those golden figures," I said, "are killer alien robots. If you can, you may want to mine them. Before they wake up."
"Great," muttered Spunkmeyer, under his breath.
As if I needed any more evidence, it was clear that my Royal Brother Tihocan was somehow in league with the Olympeans. He, and my Royal Sister Astarte. Back in Atlantis I'd have been delighted - after all we were all family - but now?
Was I just being paranoid, or was there a reason to feel that everything was not right? Something was niggling at the back of my brain, but I couldn't bring it into focus. Something to do with my awakening in 1945, and the world that I'd awakened into. Something that had driven me to disable the Dais at Temple Of The Chariot Of The Gods and to prevent whoever was stepping through - possibly Tihocan, possibly Astarte - from proceeding.
Was I just ill again, I wondered?
At the other end of the cavern, Corporal Caballa's team were approaching the "pearl".
"Can you hear me Corporal Caballa? This is Jacqueline Natla."
"I hear you."
"The thing in front of you is either an incubator egg, or it's a stasis chamber. Either way something might come out that you are forced to engage."
I could see Caballa gesturing to her team members to spread out.
"How should we proceed, Ma'am?" whispered Caballa.
"Hold position - not too close - until the Captain has finished."
I switched channels.
"Ms. Natla, Ma'am."
"Be prepared to retreat rapidly back up that tunnel taking fire."
"Any other egg sucking advice Ma'am?" she said, with a smile in her voice.
"Cute," I said.
They had mined the Dais and all of the Warriors when the flying device arrived. It was small and glittering and it was definitely having a good long look at the troops and their activities. Half a dozen weapons swung around onto it.
"Try not to shoot it," I said to Spunkmeyer, "but you've been spotted. Blow the charges and get out of there."
He shouted commands with no more pretence at stealth, and running backwards, armed his explosive trigger.
At that moment the flying thing - let's call it The Bee - had either made an executive decision or received a command. Tow appendages appeared from its torso. Flying up to Spunkmeyer before he could react, it grasped his shoulder with a metal claw and injected him in the neck with a shining needle.
Spunkmeyer fell. I glanced at his vitals, but he wasn't dead, merely asleep.
The troop opened fired on The Bee.
"Retrieve the detonator," I said on an open channel.
Steed and Dobbin were dragging Spunkmeyer towards the entrance tunnel when Trakehner yelled "Fire in the hold" and set off the explosives. The Bee was not quite quick enough to stop him, but a second later he was injected and fell unconscious.
Caballa's egg exploded, which was informative for me - it wasn't a stasis chamber containing my brother - but bad news for her. A creature, half-centaur, half-minotaur burst out, its hoofed forearms clad with fireball armaments.
I went back over the next few minutes over the following months, bent over in my chair with guilt. A few images stick in my mind.
Przewalski running and leaping onto the bull-headed centaur, grabbing the horns and then, unable to break its neck or penetrate its hide, blowing it and himself up, to a cry of grief from Falabella.
Falabella alone, running down the corridor.
A line of unconscious or disabled men, arranged in a nice line on the floor by the Bee, with only Corporal Yearling still conscious, and looking about.
His cry of horror as something crawls out of the fire and smoke, half an Atlantean warrior, pulling itself along by its arms.
His camera jittering as it reaches the end of the line and holding out a giant golden hand, its face expressionless, crushes the head of the first man before moving on to the next.
Yearling crying and praying.
Each monitor screen going blank in turn.
Yearling's scream as the golden hand closes about his face.
Only one monitor left working and the sound of gasping.
Falabella reaches the cliff, and slumps down. She seems to be broken.
"Corporal Falabella," I saw gently, trying to keep the overtones of anxiety out of my voice.
She grabs off her head set and throws it away.
For an hour she sits watching the sun going down, weeping and saying Przewalski's name, ignoring my tinny shouts.
Then, as the light goes, she is suddenly calm. She stands and falls forward off the cliff. Her life signs cease; the ledge is empty.
I lock the door of the control booth and ignore the knocking and the calling from outside.
After the Golden Pyramid incident I withdrew into self-imposed purdah. The only people I allowed into my presence were Jacarilla and Das. The local newspaper began to run stories about New Mexico's absentee Governor.
Jak prepared all my food herself - various simple succotashes and milk dishes. She had a fresh bag of kefir on the go at all times - she had become as expert as an Atlantean - and occasionally she tempted me with salty ,spicy tack resulting from her hunting endeavours, or with freshly made breads made from corn that she had ground by hand. Her grandfather, Chief Elkhorn, sent over containers of home-distilled Chiricahui Ishkodewaaboo, a sort of harsh alcoholic spirit that was very pleasant served with over ice and roughly chopped citrus fruits, and which the Chief claimed would help me with my "spirit quest". He also prescribed potions prepared from peyote or homebred hybrids of hemp called things like "herojuana", but I declined. My brain chemistry was already in an altered state.
Most days neither Jacarilla or Das got very much conversation out of me and we'd sit on the porch in silence, me with my thousand yard stare and they with their companionable meditation. I didn't feel much of anything most of the time, but the intellectual side of my brain recognised how much I loved them beneath the ice coating my heart. I found myself wishing that Elwood Gato and Jacqueline Love were still alive. I even thought of Chloe of the Golden Hair.
Then, one day, Das handed me a note. It was written in his ultra-neat hand with fountain pen and it said; "We have recovered Qualopec."
I didn't react, except to say; "Bring your Royal Uncle here. Use a covert cargo plane ... make a temporary runway ... set up labs and clinics near the Mesa ...."
I caught sight of myself in a mirror - the red-rimmed eyes, the dry hair and haggard skin - and looked away with a stab of self-loathing.
Das bowed, kissed my hand silently and went on his way..
Later I watched the heavy rollers at work just out of earshot and the air-conditioned trailers parking respectfully in the distance in preparation. I wondered if any of the workmen spotted the mad old lady sitting on a rocking chair on the porch of Parajito Mesa, steadily getting drunk from breakfast time onwards.
Then I received an electronic message informing me that the plane had lifted off from Bogota and was expected to touch down at sunset.
I cleaned myself up, conditioned my hair, put on a plain white dress, simple chamois sandals with calf ties and one or two pieces of modest jewellery, doing myself up like a virtuous Attic matron. I knew that Qualopec would not be aware but I felt it fitting. I was weak, however, and so I allowed myself a wide-brimmed "beekeeper" hat and a beechwood thumbstick to lean upon.
I watched the plane as it lumbered in, casting a giant shadow across the land and felt the vibration of the ground as it touched down. I allowed myself to be driven in one of the dune buggies out to the airstrip, where the plane was already flanked by vehicles and generators. The tail gate was down and we drove straight inside. There, bathed by spotlights, was what looked like an orange cargo container, with Das standing before the closed doors.
"Order everybody out," I whispered to him as I hobbled up, leaning on my thumbstick, hat brim pulled over my eyes.
Alone, he unlatched the metal doors and swung them open, first one side then the other, with a rusty scraping and clanging.
I could see a dim shape stowed inside, tied down with cables and cradled by braces, but it wasn't until Das began to position the lights inside that I could begin to make him out.
At the risk of boring you, I'll just say that it was a very emotional moment for me. I was glad of my stick and hat.
To be blunt, my brother looked like a cooked body in the remains of a car crash. The spidery legs and carapace of his prosthetic armour looked as if they had been crushed by a hundred tons of rock and he himself resembled a cross between a mummy and a barbeque sausage overlooked in the ashes.
I approached gingerly, snapping my fingers for a torch. His head was intact, and that was all that really mattered.
I took a hanky from my pocket and gently brushed to the rock dust from that sleepy face, at first sight little more than a leather mask.
"Hello again, my Royal Brother," I said gently. "Has anybody told you that you look like the villain from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre?"
I touched his cheek with my fingers, and immediately, a thrill of hope. I felt not cold hard leather, but something smoother and slightly static. There was a very thin layer of what appeared to be a statis field surrounding his skull. Qualopec's gallant exoskeleton, masterwork of my Royal Brother Tihocan, had gallantly expended the last of its many thousand-year-old radioactive fuel attempting to protect its master.
"We can rebuild him," I said. "We have the technology."
We removed him in bits, the head in its stasis field and then the body, the latter to be treated with rehydration liquids and fabric softeners. I wept at his shrunken limbs and the deep scars where his flesh has interfaced with the metal. It was all my fault.
The body was easy for we immediately began to grow another, a trivial matter for Natla Technologies. The head, though - now that was a three pipe problem.
"What is personality?" I mused. "What are memories? Somewhere frozen in that leather football are his last thought and his first thought, laid out in a pattern of protein scaffolding and neuronal wiring, charged clouds and half-open gates. The smell of an Atlantean rose lies written within the states of probability flickering around the periphery of his QDNA. How do we access it without destroying it?"
The answer turned out to be; gingerly.
We probed that skull with every ray and every magnet, and collated the results in a giant 3D model in the world's most powerful computer. Some parts were the bioalgorithms that we all share in common - how to walk, how to breathe - and for those we could fill in the gaps ourselves.
Then - remote probing exhausted - we switched off the preservation field and sent in the spiders. Tribes of cooperating arachnobots scuttled thought the spaces of his mind, memorising what they saw in the same way that they would remember the complexities of an individual web, and then relayed the information to the mind construct forming in cyberspace.
The computers pondered and modelled and mathematicked the results day after day until the uber-program announced that they had 95% of a whole person, a software homunculus, ready for transplantation into a newly grown cerebellum.
As we reassembled Qualopec, I felt myself being re-assembled.
Then at last the great day of the awakening ceremony arrived.
Qualopec was laid out on a Royal Bed, marvellous in his beauty (of which more anon), an Atlantean Prince rebuilt.
I dressed in as much Atlantean finery as I could reconstruct, even preparing a set of jewels that would wink in an approximation of my finery of old, allowing me to gesture and declaim in High Ancient Atlantean.
"Revive His Royal Highness," I ordered, and Das pulled down a wall switch, bathing the room in the cracking of lighting flashes and the whirring and bubbling of machines. The new mind was fed into the new body.
Qualopec twitched and then arched his back as a bolt of electricity entered his chest, restarting his heart.
We waited, listening to the thud of his heart beat over the lab monitors.
Then his eyes snapped open, and he sat bolt upright on his bier, his gaze locking with mine.
"You're alive," I said.
Qualopec and I were true brother and sister, offspring of the same Atlantean slave girl by the mighty Atlas, who for so many years held up the mighty edifice that was Atlantis on his broad shoulders. As is only natural, right from the get go we were truly and deeply besotted with each other.
My natural sexual proclivities went right out of the window; maybe there is only one kind of man who can genuinely "cure" a lesbian, and that is her beloved brother. One wonders how many women turn to other women simply because no man can ever measure up to their siblings.
I wondered, of course, if the memory of my alleged treachery and my trial had conveniently been mislaid from his mind but then one day as we lay together he said; "I am sorry, my most beloved Royal Sister, that I did not return to release you as I promised. I failed not from a lack of honour, but from a lack of energy."
"Now you have all the energy of a brave new world," I replied, snuggling again him. "You are the Royal Bull to my Royal Cow."
Of course the press were delighted, and we gave out that Qualopec was a Peruvian archaeologist who had been rescued from a rock fall by the staff of Natla Tech. Apparently I had fallen for him whilst nursing him back to health, and this tale, with its mixture of feminine soppiness and masculine derring-do went down like an enthusiastic lover with my public. Besides, Qualopec's natural beauty made Alexander Icarus look ersatz and artificial in comparison.
If I was impressed with the remade Qulaopec, Nas was even more so. They were both warriors and so I think both were tempted to fall into the traditional roles of pais and erastes so beloved of the ancient armies, even though strictly speaking Nas was rather too old to make such a pederast relationship quite respectable (by Atlantean standards). However they took a more chaste approach and in spite of continually washing and oiling each other's bodies and often sharing a bed, they did nothing that would have been thought unacceptable between athletes, footballers or boxers. However although buggery was not rigueur, I'm sure they thought nothing of manually relieving each other whilst sharing a passionate kiss, their hard, oiled bodies sliding sinuously together in that manly, military companionship that builds the bonds one finds useful on a battlefield.
Often at dawn I would see them struggling in the dust outside the Mesa Parajito, each trying to throw the other in some complicated form of wrestling. Nas taught his beloved uncle English and introduced him to the terror of the gun, whilst Qualopec instructed Nas in tactics and took him on long Spartan retreats into the desert, both naked except for flasks of oil and water and a single hunting knife.
The new order of things had an unfortunate side, however. Neither Bea Bartak nor Jacarilla Elkhorn understood, perhaps naturally enough.
One day they walked solemnly together into my living room, where I, Qualopec and Nas were lounging about drink mojitos, and announced that they were leaving.
I cried, Nas cried, Bea cried, Jacarilla looked grim and Qualopec was distressed. However there was nothing to be done. Neither Nas nor I could give up our new family member, and Bea and Jak would share. Bea spat at Nas' feet and called him a "duce pe cai greshite" or some such thing. Jak gave me an awful look as if she wished that she could kill me. I begged for forgiveness but I could see that she was dreaming of gutting me like one of her hunted animals. I could feel the knives from her eyes flaying the skin from my heart.
Eventually they left.
Everybody was very upset for a fair period of time.
Then, after a decent period, we announced my impending nuptials to Qualopec.
One day Das came in to tell us about his ideas for space defense. Despite his polite smiles, I had the impression that he didn't really like Qualopec. He'd get used to him, I thought.
"We have created an offshoot company called Natla Galactic and built an operating base here in New Mexico called Spaceport Atlántico."
Qualopec's English was fairly good by this time. "Why Atlántico, Royal Nephew?" he said.
"My Royal Uncle asks an interesting question," said Das, bowing. "The name has resonances of both the modern world, of the 'Atlantic' as the Americans call the Ocean, and of ancient Atlantis, which they already have named a spacecraft after."
"Why not just Spaceport Natla?" I said.
"Our focus groups say that people are becoming tired of the name Natla cropping up all over the place."
Qualopec and I exchanged glances.
"Leave it for now," I said. "We have to at least appear democratic."
Das projected a photograph onto the wall. "And this is the spacecraft," he said. "It will achieve low earth orbit above the atmosphere which will be sufficient for the attack that I have planned."
"Attack?" said Qualopec.
"I'll fill you in later," I said. I hadn't told him that I intended to attack Olympeans and I wasn't looking forward to it. Qualopec waved a regal hand to indicate that we should continue.
The space craft had two parts; a mothership that looked like a commercial plane and then seated in between the two jet engines a smaller orbital craft which could detach itself and fly upwards into space.
"And what is this named?"
"The mothership is called the African Queen," said Das, "but I thought I'd leave the naming of the orbital craft to you."
"First explain how it works. How can you use it as a weapon?"
Das went through all the details; the payload, the flight plan, the target and the weapon, and as he did I could see Qualopec stiffening. I placed a hand on his arm and gave him a look that signaled patience.
"Just like The Dambusters," I said, with a smile. "You are an ingenious engineer, my son."
"Thank you, Mama Jackie," said Das, bowing again.
I pondered for a moment. "I think a good name for the space craft might be ... J for Jackie".
"I thought you weren't naming things after yourself any more?" said Qualopec.
"Oh, it's not named after me," I replied, sadly.
Behind closed doors Qualopec and I had the first row that we'd had since the good old days.
"I've been listening and looking and learning, my Esteemed Royal Sister-Wife," said Qualopec, striding up and down the room, "and I am forced to the conclusion that you have declared war on the Lords of the Sky and the Sea." I had given Qualopec access to all of our activities. It seemed pointless to keep anything from him any more.
"Not so, my Beloved Brother-Husband," I said, sitting meekly on a chair with my hands folded in my lap.
"Then perhaps you can explain to me why you have dispatched our Royal Niece-Daughter to close the Gateways of the Gods and commissioned our Royal Nephew-Sons to shoot down the Chariot of the Gods?"
"My answer as to the Daises is that we do not know that they are Gateways to the Gods. They are also Gateways to the Underworld and to other worlds we know nothing of. They may even on occasion be Gateways to Times Past. Would you free the Blood-hungry Dead? Would you rouse the Gigantomachy from their burial beneath the mountains? And if so, would the Olympean Gods thank us?"
"Hypotheticals," snorted Qualopec.
"My darling," I said, placing a placating palm on him, "I swear that I saw our deranged and vengeful brother Tihocan through the Dais in the Temple of the Chariot of the Gods."
Qualopec pursed his lips. "Very well. Your reluctance on that point, although not showing very much family loyalty, is at least understandable. But what of the rest of it? You rave as if you were in the grip of Phobos."
I sat him down and poured us glasses of ambrosia. I lit the incense brazier and put harp music to play.
"There are two points which I must explain," I said, "and if at the end you find my logic wanting I will call off the hounds."
Qualopec's face emptied of anger and he remained merely quizzical.
"The first point is the information that I have received from the woman known to us as Lara Croft."
"The destroyer of the Golden Pyramid of Aea and the would-be assassin of yourself on numerous occasions?" said Qulaopec with a dry laugh.
"You forget, dear husband, that I dearly love this old enemy of mine and I can detect when she is telling the truth. Deadly she may be but dissembling she is not. She is like a naive child."
"Lara has visited the Tombs of many of the Olympeans on Mars. Many of the Gods that we knew, including our beloved grandfather Poseidon, peace be upon him, are dead. Lara spoke of an alternative to Earth named ur-Earth and of two factions of the gods, one led by the male Diwo and the by the female Diwija, who destroyed themselves in a lethal war."
"The Gods fought many wars in the time before Atlantis."
"But which faction approaches and what is their intent, my dearest? As rulers of a kingdom threatened by an unknown enemy with unknown powers what can one do but prepare for all eventualities."
"This does not explain why you plan to attack them first."
"The second of my two points is this," I said, gently. "I have observed the human race of the modern age. They are proud beyond measure and spoiled beyond sanity."
"Maybe a return to the Golden Age would address those faults? One world, one state, one religion, my beautiful wife."
"If only," I said sadly. "I was awakened into this world be the sting of a fearsome wasp, whose toxin would easily spread o'er the planet and extinguish all life. It is my considered opinion that the human race would rather die and take their cities with them into a poisoned fiery abyss than submit. We have left them to play alone for too long and now our children have run out of control."
Qualopec took my hand.
"It is your considered opinion that our future subjects would rather die than welcome the return of the Gods?"
"Why do you think that recently I have taken the tentative path to power that I have, working within their belief systems and wearing the masks that they have provided? I could have unleashed the might of Atlantis - I even tried once - but I was deluded. I'd have killed the baby in its bed."
Qualopec pondered this and as he did absentmindly put an arm around me and kissed me. I could feel him as close as a trout to my tickling fingers.
"Could be not greet the Gods and see what they propose?"
"The humans would not be able to. Their minds would be filled with terror and horror at the mere proof of a God. In their genetically programmed survival mode they would shoot first. Hence I propose to shoot for them, as their ruler, in a fashion that is under my control. In this way we may gain a space both to fire a warning shot across the face of God and to allow the human race to adjust to their eventual rulers."
Qualopec smiled. "You are the most cunning of us all, our own Odysseus. And what if the Gods object to your warning shot?"
I shrugged. "If Tihocan is with them then I am already outlawed and condemned from his lips. I may as well get my money's worth and if necessary provide a scapegoat to the anger of the Lords of the Sun and the Sea if only to divert it from my subjects."
Qualopec's eyes filled with tears and I knew that I had him. But I wondered which side he'd bet on when the chips were down.
I had been so busy having a good time with Qualopec that I had blotted Amanda from my mind. Where was Amanda?
"Where is Amanda?" I said to Nas and Das.
"She's ... I don't know, Mama Jackie," said Nas, cheerfully. "Presumably still shutting down Daises."
"But you don't know precisely?"
"No," said Das. "But I can try and locate her."
"Please do. I want her to meet her Uncle. Now ... what was it you wanted to tell me?"
Nas came over and put an arm around my shoulder. "Time for a stiff Atlantean upper lip," he said.
The news was this; apparently, as the year wore on, the number of strange natural phenomena had increased. There had been tsunami and earthquakes and eruptions all over the place. The trend was positively apocalyptic.
"Much of this is due to increased sun spot activity," said Nas, softly. "It has even had an effect on military communications."
I looked at his face, and I knew what they were going to tell me.
"Then, this morning, we received these reports from astronomers across the globe," said Das, handing me some printouts. "There is a huge tornado on the planet Venus, and a new Red Spot has appeared on the face of Jupiter."
"But that's not the worst of it," whispered Nas, holding me tighter.
"Radar has picked up an object which appears to have appeared from nowhere somewhere near Pasiphaë," said Das, stumbling and stammering somewhat over his sentence. His hands were shaking and his face was like beige chalk. "The object will reach earth some time between December 21st and December 23rd, 2012."
I sat down rather heavily, despite Nas' support.
They say that the anticipation of what you most fear is worse than the actual event itself, but I couldn't detect any lessening of my secret terror.
"It's looks as if we'll be having relatives over for Christmas," I said, in a sepulchral tone.