Snow White Tan
I awoke rather slowly, sluggishly. I could sense that the two syrettes that she had slammed into each of my carotid arteries had contained morphine.
I rubbed my eyes. I took in my surroundings with panicked jerks of my head, like a trapped pigeon. I was aboard a jet plane - presumably my Learjet 85 - and we were in the air. The roar of the engines augmented the roar of blood in my ears, and the faint smell of gas increased my nausea.
I staggered to my feet, banging my head on the ceiling. I was in a luxuriously-appointed cylinder 6 feet by 6 feet by 24 feet and in my present frame of mind it reminded me of a glistening white sarcophagus. I stumbled forward to the head - the bright shininess of it smote my eyes as I vomited. The Learjet 85 lavatory is beautifully appointed, combining function with flawless aesthetics, the brochure had said. I stumbled across the aisle to wash myself. Among its many amenities are a faucet and sink with pressurized water flow and water tank, as well a vanity cabinet with lighted mirror. Perfectly rolled handtowels nestled in something that resembled a glass wine rack.
I tried the handle to the pilot's cabin. It was locked and I wasn't ready to break it down. I could see nothing out of the windows. We may as well have been flying through Tartarus.
There were 16 seats in the cabin, nestled in sets of four around bijou tables, all unoccupied.
At the back I found a fridge, with inside some bottles of champagne and the sort of freeze dried snacks one finds in a hotel minibar. I washed down some peanuts with the wine. Whatever was happening, I needed my strength back and my wits about me. There's something about the bubbly sharpness of a good champagne that can restore anybody's self-confidence. The fridge wasn't quite fully stocked, as if somebody had already been helping themselves.
I tried the various gadgets scattered around the cabin used for getting or transmitting information. The computer map had been turned off, as had the phones.
I went to the rear closet, coded to my biometric data. Whoever had kidnapped me hadn't broken into it. I knew then that I was armed and that I could escape, if necessary.
I took another swig of champagne and found myself narrowing my eyes as I glared down the plane at the pilot cabin.
"Someone," I said, "has been a very naughty girl."
I strode down the plane and hammered on the door.
"Get out here for an ass-whooping!" I yelled.
There was no response.
"This is my aeroplane and I want it back!"
"If you don't open this door in seconds I'm getting the fire axe ..." I didn't know if there really was a fire axe "... and I'm coming in there to take you down with extreme prejudice!"
Suddenly the Learjet flipped over so that we were upsidedown. I thudded into the roof. There was a roar of the engine as the jet went into an impossibly steep dive. I was floating, gravity-less. Then it started to pull up suddenly so that I was thrown heavily to the floor.
I knew when I was beaten. I crawled back to my seat and slumped heavily into it. As I sat there breathing deeply in order to regain my equanimity, a television began to appear from a recess in front of me, emblazoned with the Natla Tech logo.
I awoke rather slowly, sluggishly. I could sense that the two syrettes that she had slammed into each of my carotid arteries had contained morphine.
Enter a weirdly young looking Winston Jeeves, Lara Croft's butler. He has grey hair but it looks like a young mop of hair dyed grey. His stance is that of a much younger man and his face is tanned and smooth.
Winston: "Do I have to do this, Miss Croft?"
Female voice offscreen: "Just get on with it."
WInston: "With all due respect, Miss, but wouldn't you be better?"
Female voice: "You know I hate being photographed and the idea of appearing in a movie is ... well, quite frankly, appalling. Now please - stop whining and get started, there's a good chap.
Winston (sighing and straightening his tie): "Very well, Miss. First slide please."
There is the clack of a vintage rotary slide projector and behind Winston on a slightly haphazardly hung white sheet appear the words "The City Of Tinnos."
Winston: "Well, first we have an account of an underground site situated on the Antarctic Peninsula that Ms. Croft explored in about 1998."
The next slide shows a map of the Antarctic Peninsula, a sort of snout-like protuberance jutting northwards from the bulk of the continent towards the tip of South America.
"So called from local legend." Winston, shuffling and dropping papers. "Architectural detail vaguely Polynesian, but actual architecture completely unlike any other. Mutant insects, some man size, able to function in sub-zero temperatures, not unlike the Arctic Bumble Bee or the Antarctic Midge."
Female voice: "Is there a problem?"
Winston: "No, Madam. No problem. Just having to squint at your handwriting. Mutants ... glow in dark like fireflies, and some shoot ball lightning from the abdomen tip. Unsure if native or result of meteor radiation."
The next slide shows some badly drawn animals, one resembling a giant green hornet, and the other, something from Hell.
Female voice: "Tell them that I apologise for my lack of artistic skills. I'd have provided photos but quite frankly I was too busy trying not to get my head blown off to take tourist snaps."
Winston: "I think that they can hear you, Madam."
Female voice: "Continue then."
Winston: "Recurring motif in Tinnos architecture is the sun:"
The next slide shows a circle surmounting five chunky downward-pointing rays.
Winston: "Unknown mythology - not Polynesian, Egyptian or Aztec for example - but may refer either to sun worship or light driven power sources ... one found on site still functioning as a pillar of energy. Next slide."
An old black and white slide - unclear whether it is a photo or a drawing - showing a sled team in the foreground on a flat snowfield with mountains in the background.
Winston: "Included in a letter written in 1936 by Grigory Shelikhov and sent from the 3rd base of the British Alexander Land Expedition. This expedition explored the Antarctic Peninsula by sea, air, and dog team from 1935 to 1937, using a different base each winter."
He indicates the middle of the picture with a wooden pointer.
Winston: "Here, at precisely 70th Parallel South, 70th Meridian West, one of the sled teams thought that they spotted what they described as a 'pyramidal peak' nestling in the Mount Umbriel Range. Unfortunately the weather closed in before they could investigate further."
Female voice: "OK good. Here, catch!"
Winston stumbles as he catches a large whitish object thrown from off screen.
Winston: "Remarkable - fished out of the ruins and not a dent or a scorch mark."
Female voice: "One of the few things that survived the fire at the Mansion."
Winston holds the object up to the camera. It is a white head, with features resembling Agamemnon's Mask and studded with various tubes, a la one of Doctor Who's Cybermen.
Winston: "An Olympian warrior. A sort of ... biomechanical device. Which bring us onto the next portion of our presentation. Next slide please?"
A title slide appears with "Olympus Mons" written on it in crayon.
Winston: "Before the Atlanteans there were the Olympeans. In the late 1990's we dug up one of their spacecraft in the grounds of the Croft Mansion."
A photo of a large empty hole in the ground.
Winston: "Lady Croft and various companions activated the device and it flew them to the planet Mars, to the extinct volcano named Olympus Mons."
A photo of Olympus Mons on Mars, photographed from orbit.
Winston: "There they discovered the tombs of various Olympeans, including those of the beings known to mythology as Poseidon and Ares."
A picture of a statue - a man with a horse's head.
Female voice: "This photo probably isn't directly relevant - it's a picture of Vadavamukha, a Vedic deity. But in the Tomb of Demeter, or 'Diwija' as she was called, we viewed an ancient projection that showed beings with horses' heads. Taking part in a ceremony called the Thesmophoria."
Winston: "As Madam said. The point being that the Olympean gods were aliens - some were even non-humanoid - and although many appear to be long dead, there are still signs of dormant life. And there is a remarkable similarity between the site on Mars and the Lost City of Tinnos."
Female voice: "So we're going back. Third time for me, first time for you. There's a door that needs opening."
Winston: "... a door. With some sort of biological key. Underneath the pyramidal mountain called Astarte's Horn."
Female voice: "Thank you for watching. The end. How do I turn it off?"
I do not have the descriptive powers to describe the powerful effect that this movie had upon me. If you have been following this memoir so far, I think that maybe you can imagine. As to my specific reactions, I think I'll allow the telling of the tale to reveal them as we go along.
A third of the way through the film I went to the sealed closet at the back of the Learjet. Inside were copies of my wings, of my device for throwing fireballs, and of my armoured clothing.
I allowed the tendrils from the fire ball thrower to infiltrate the cloaca at the small of my back, connecting directly into my nervous system, responsive to my every thought. I did the same for my wings. The plane could go down now and I'll be able to just fly away. I straightened the creases of The Straightjacket, smoothing the sleeves and re-creasing the collar. I was now more or less invulnerable.
I went to the pilot's cabin and knocked politely on the door.
There was a moment's pause and the lock clicked. I let myself in.
Lara Croft was seated at the pilot's seat, a lit Montechristo cigar in one hand, and a champagne bottle in the other, her boots up on the dashboard.
I pointed my fireball thrower in the rough direction of her head. "Lara Croft," I said, "you just don't know when to die."
"Fair enough," said Lara, agreeably, blowing cigar smoke at me. I was quoting her reaction when we'd once met. "I suppose I did sound a bit of a pompous twat. You caught me by surprise."
"Good gods," I said, fanning my face. "Who told you that you could smoke?"
"It's good stuff. Cuban. Hurrah for Communism, and all that. Want one?"
I wedged myself sideways in the co-pilot seat.
"I'll pass." I peered at the avionics screens. "Where exactly are we?"
Lara peered at the screen. "Approaching Antarctica at Mach 0.82 and at 42,000 feet, I think. It's your plane; you tell me. I just programmed the coordinates into the GPS. For all I know we're about to drive straight into a cliff."
I looked at her. "How on earth did you get us down here? This thing doesn't have the range."
Lara waved her hand airily. "Oh, you know. I put down on a mate's airstrip in Colombia and refueled. Then I refueled at a second mate's airfield in Chile. Love the ride through. I'll have to get one. Even a chimp could fly it."
I examined her. She'd gone back to the ridiculously impractical plait and was dressed in grey and grey khaki camouflage pants and an orange fur-trimmed survival jacket. I thought she'd lost weight. She was armed, not least with what appeared to be an RPG, which was wedged somewhat awkwardly across the windscreen.
As for her face - well, it was that face. The same almost Asiatic eyes, the cute nose, the Latina lips. They say most of the English were mongrels and Lara was no exception. The habitual expression flitted over her eyes; on the surface they were filled with humour but underneath they were as dead as an icicle. A smiling killer, personal motto "Fuck you all".
"What's 'fuck you all' in Latin?" I asked.
Lara made that "dunno" noise. "Futuere totum or something? Haven't got a bastard clue really. Ancient languages aren't my strong point."
I was about to tell her that there was nothing to stop me blowing a hole in the fuselage and then flying to safety when a loud beeping noise started up from the control panel, and various indicators turned to warning colours..
"What is it?" I said.
"Oopsie," said Lara, sitting up straight and grasping the control wheel.
"What do you mean - oopsie?"
Suddenly we broke through the black clouds and there in the predawn was Antarctica, approaching rapidly.
"I think we're about to fly straight into the Neptune Glacier at five hundred miles per hour," said Lara, thoughtfully. "Hard core!"
I took in the outside in one rapid glance. It looked very cold and very isolated, and even if I left the aircraft I'd have no idea what to do next.
I sparked my forearm weapon and held it next to Lara's head so that there was the smell of singed hair.
"Turn us around," I said slowly and forcefully.
"Really?" said Lara, pulling her head away.
At that very second it was as if we were dropping in an elevator. We both screamed.
"Cocking hell," said Lara, pulling as hard as she could on the steering column, her forearms vibrating with the effort. "Downdraft!"
I grabbed the co-pilot controls but they didn't seem to make any difference.
"You moron!" I said.
A variety of alarms were going off - proximity alarm, stall alarm. We probably weren't but the view from the cockpit suggested that we were about to fly into a white wall. There seemed to be a lot of airborne snow. Anybody in front of us would probably have been struck by the ridiculousness of the sight. Lara wrestling with the controls, her view mostly blocked by an RPG and me stuffed into a space too small for my wings, both our mouths locked open in a silent scream.
Lara gave one last wrench to the column and the Learjet bucked like a horse. There was a loud crunch, a bounce, a prolonged scraping sound, another bounce and then we were speeding along a flat white expanse like an out of control race car.
"My plane!" I said. "Did you lower the undercarriage?"
"No point," said Lara, a semblance of cheerfulness returning to her face. "It would have ripped off. Anyway - aren't you insured?"
"Hit the damned air brakes, you idiot."
"We're not running out of runway any time soon."
"This thing isn't designed to scoot along on its belly." I applied the brakes and the engines began to roar.
"We're slowing," said Lara. "I think this bit is up hill."
And so on. As you can probably guess we eventually skidded to a halt someway on the upper reaches of the Neptune Glacier.
For a minute or two we both sat in the comparative silence, the main sounds being the howling wind and the spattering of hail on the windscreen.
I stirred myself with an oath and extricated myself from the cockpit. I went back to the galley and poured myself a brandy, my wingtips quivering with fury. I disconnected my wings and my weapon, laying them carefully across the seats.
I returned to the cockpit.
Lara had relit her cigar. I took it from her mouth and stubbed it out on her trousers. She yelped and brushed off the glowing ash before it could burn.
I bent to the avionics suite and activated the emergency systems. A signal was being bounced off the nearest satellite and now all we had to do was wait for rescue.
I went back into the cabin, reclined one of the seats and pulled a couple of flight blankets over myself. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my mind.
"I'm trying to sleep."
There was five minutes of silence.
"Natla - I really think you ought to think about this."
"If I find you've switched off the distress signal I'm going to get positively Atlantean on your ass," I mumbled.
"There's information in there that you need," said Lara, reasonably.
"You have absolutely no conception of how dangerous if would be for me to go in there. Dangerous for me, dangerous for the planet."
Lara was drinking something from the sound of it. "Interesting name, Astarte's Horn. "Horn" is like the Matterhorn. It's a German name for a sharp pyramidal peak. Do you want to know who named it that?"
I said nothing.
"The Nazi expedition to New Swabia, east of here. They must have sent a U-boat round the peninsula for some reason. Odd that. That and the choice of the name 'Astarte'".
"Tell it to the birds," I said.
"Did I tell you about ur-Earth and about how an A.I. on the Olympean spaceship used a vision of my father stolen from my own mind to try and trick me into destroying the Earth as part of an ancient war between two factions of gods?"
I snuggled down. It didn't matter what she said. I knew my limitations and going anyway near an Olympean site on the edge of the terrifying Pacific was outside my remit. Her talk of Olympeans and of an ancient war and of Astarte terrified me to such an extent I had become numb and sleepy. I should have been listening to Lara talking about ur-Earth. Legend - or Lara, I can't remember - said that ur-Earth was Earth's sinister twin on the other side of the sun, this being the ur-Earth that was to play such a large role in our future lives. But I blocked it out.
"You go if you want to," I said.
Lara sighed. "Inside the complex there's a huge depiction of you, Tihocan, Qualopec and someone who looks a bit like your younger sister. Did I tell you that whilst I was inside Qualopec's Tomb, just as it collapsed, I could have sworn I saw him move? Are you sure you safer just ignoring all of this?"
"Yes." My teeth had started chattering.
"I thought you wanted to be ruler of the world. I thought you felt that you have some divine duty to rule? Where's your sense of responsibility to your subjects?"
That did it. I threw back the blanket and grabbing one of Lara's pistols put it to her forehead and pulled the trigger. There was a click. In my fury I'd forgotten the safety catch.
"Whao there, tiger!" Lara batted away the pistol in exasperation.
"You have no freaking idea!" I said. "No idea at all."
"You need to know."
"OK. I'll send a team from Natla Tech as soon as I'm home."
"I tried for days to get in. They wouldn't be able to get in either."
I got up and started to pace up and down the aisle, drinking more brandy to try and still the shakes. I was mortally terrified.
"What happens if I die?" I said.
"Dunno," said Lara, with a shrug. "You pay another visit to the City of Angels?"
"What about my destiny?"
"What about if a big Olympean flyswatter descends from above and splatters you and your so-called destiny into the carpet?"
She scrabbled in her backpack and produced a battered looking notebook held shut with an elastic band. She opened it and pointed to a passage.
"I don't believe in monomyths or dotty theories cobbled together from half remembered facts but read this passage I found on Wikipedia."
I took the book gingerly.
"An esoteric Nazi Gnostic sect called the Erbengemeinschaft der Tempelritter, founded in the early 1930s, teaches a form of the Gnostic religion called Bogomilism," it said. "They claimed that the Aryan race originally came to Atlantis from the stars Alpha and Beta Geminorum (this information is supposedly based on "ancient Sumerian manuscripts"). Alpha Geminorum also has the Arabic name Al-Ras al-Taum al-Muqadim, which literally means "The Head of the Foremost Twin." They maintain that the Aryans from Gemini derive their power from the "magic" energy of the Sonnenrad (the German for "Sun Wheel"). They teach that since the Aryan race is of extraterrestrial origin it has a divine mission to dominate all the other races. It is believed by adherents of this religion that an enormous space fleet is on its way from Gemini which, when it arrives, will re-conquer the Earth."
I contined to stare at the text long after I'd finished reading it. "It's all nonsense of course," I said, "and rather boring nonsense at that."
But still - "The Head of the Foremost Twin"? Where the hell had that come from?
I hated to admit it, but Lara was right. We just had to know.
One hundred million years ago or so a continental microfragment, complete with a section of the spine known as the Andes, impacted with the edge of the former continent known as Gondwana and the Antarctic Peninsula was born. Further north in Chile caves exist in which the remains of bones and shellfish and primitive tools show the presence of protohumans, and the crevice in an exposed cliff below the flank of Astarte's Horn was no doubt once the same, maybe in the days before Antarctica became surrounded entirely by ocean and the temperature began to drop and drop.
"How come you don't get cold feet?" said Lara, her breath ballooning in the torchlight.
"My feet only look bare," I said, sombrely. All the way across the snowfield from the Learjet, watching Lara striding along on her skis far below me, my mind had been filled with thoughts of my sister. "The suit covers me with a nearly invisible second skin.
Lara shone her headlamp at me. "Don't worry," she said. "This is the narrowest bit. We don't have to go far inside to get to the hatch."
"I don't think there is anything that you can say."
"Watch your wings. Here - give me your hand - there's a tricky bit. Step down from the rock that you are on onto the gravel floor."
"Can you hear a buzzing?"
"There's always a buzzing. It will get louder as we go down. Don't let it worry you."
"Don't worry about giant bioluminescent wasps?"
"If any turn up I'll take them down. Did I tell you that they've been named after me? I took some body parts to the Natural History Museum."
"Are we nearly at this hatch?"
"Nearly there. They named them Megapelecinus croftii. Cool eh? Normally my contribution to natural history is to shoot it."
"And what did they call the giant black insect monsters? Fucyouupus bastardi?"
Lara sniggered. "You made a funny!" she said.
"It's just nerves. You've heard of nerves?"
"Here's the hatch."
She brushed away the frost to reveal a circular logo. It read "Deutsche Antarktische Expedition 1938-1939". In the centre was an engraving showing Nazi flag planted in a map of "Neu-Schwabenland."
"Velcome to the glorious Thousand Year Reich, mein Fuhrer," said Lara, fastening her gloves hands around a metal handle and pulling with all her might.
"How on earth did they have the means to make a giant metal hatch?"
"They had all sorts. Freighters. U-boats. Aircraft. This is the Nazis we're talking about."
"You have to admire them."
"Um ... possibly not." The hatch opened with a crash and a wave of fetid air rushed upwards, causing me to stagger back, coughing.
Lara put a steadying hand on my arm. "Stiffen the sinews," she said. "It's not as bad as it smells."
Under the hatch was a shaft in the rock, rough-sided and not quite vertical. From it issued heat and an even louder buzzing. Lara produced a rope ladder, and - tying it off on the hatch hinges - allowed it to clatter away into the darkness.
"Ladies first," she said with a grin, and practically dropped into the hole.
I crouched at the edge, shivering. I watch the rope ladder shaking as she descended. Eventually it stopped moving and then, suddenly - making me jump backwards - it undulated like a cracked whip.
"Oi!" I heard Lara shouting far below. "Are we having fun yet?"
"Is it safe?" I yelled.
There was a brief silence. "Well there's nothing trying to kill me at the moment, if that's what you mean."
I folded my wings close to my back, and using my one free hand proceeded awkwardly down the chimney, using a motion that was half abseiling and half dropping like a stone. Then I clattered through a hole in the ceiling and found myself spinning in an open space. I let go of the ladder in shock, but by spreading my wings managed a heavy but uninjured landing.
"Stylish," said Lara, fanning away the cloud of dust and ice particles that I'd stirred up. She helped me to my feet. "Are you OK?"
"Fabulous," I said, distractedly, gazing around me.
We were in a giant tunnel, not unlike one of the tunnels in the Golden Pyramid of Aea, but on an altogether bigger scale. The walls gleamed with luminescence, but despite that the tunnel stretched away on each side into the distance until it was too dark to see any more. The colour scheme in the Golden Pyramid is black and blood red, but this was green and blue, like a corpse in a lake. Raised from the floor were three parallel tracks of blue stone.
"Welcome to the Olympean Line, calling at all stops from Tinnos to Astarte's Horn," said Lara. "God's own Underground."
"In that direction, after about a mile, the tunnel has collapsed," said Lara. "But in that direction, after about a mile, is our destination."
I tilted my head from side to side to remove the tension knots and did a few stretching exercises. Then I set off after Lara before she disappeared from sight.
As I jogged along, drops of fire falling from the weapon on my right hand, the end of the tunnel became visible in the distance, silhouetting Lara's running figure. At first it was merely a grey pentagon, and then as we began to get closer, tiny indistinguishable details began to appear.
My eyes were forward but I was listening behind me, strained for the thud of a giant limb or an increase of the general background buzzing. The air was growing drier and warmer, with a smell of old paprika. The journey went on and on as the minutes passed, with nothing changing but the humidity and the darkness at the end of the tunnel.
At every second I was expecting to see gun flashes start ahead of me, or the whoosh/crash of an RPG. My mind's eye saw Lara doing that weird sideways leap of hers, feet over head, twin guns blazing.
I could feel a sort of static in the air, trickling my nose and raising the hairs on my body. I noticed that Lara was waiting for me, standing next to what I could only envisage was a set of giant buffers.
"You're quite fit for an old codger," she said as I ran up.
Beyond the buffers the tunnel turned into a staircase leading downwards. On each side were smaller trackways, and stranded half on, half off, the crumbled remains of a transportation platform of some kind.
"What now," I said. I was breathless, but not from exertion.
"Down these stairs and then we reach the hall. Think Grand Central Station on steroids designed by an Atlantean Ken Adams."
"Hang on a minute," I said, picking up a metal object from the rubble on the floor. It looked like a rusted tuna tin welded to a razorfish shell. "What's this?"
Lara examined it, turning it over in her fingers.
"It's the magazine from a Nazi machine gun," she said. "The Bergmann MP 18 to be precise. Still got a round in it." She levered a bullet out of the rusty object. "There you go - an original nine times nineteen. A 9x19mm Parabellum full metal jacket."
I scanned around. The floor was covered with shell casings. There were what looked like red stains and tiny scraps of freeze dried bacon. I picked up the remains of a gun barrel, bent in the middle and engraved with the legend "Theodore Bergmann Abt. Waffenbau".
"Looks as if our German expedition was in a fire fight," I said.
"It wasn't on the way in," said Lara. "It was on the way out."
"How do you know?"
I let the mangled gun barrel fall from my fingers with a clang, and looked at her.
"How do I know that this isn't some sort of Machiavellian scheme to get me killed?" I said.
Lara smiled. "Darling, if I'd wanted you dead I'd have plastered your brains all over your bedroom ceiling in New Mexico."
"And you really need me to go down there?"
"There's no other way. Look around you at the remains of the people who tried and failed."
"So how is it that you survived your previous visit?"
Lara tapped the side of her nose. "Good breeding," she said. "Onwards and downwards!"
At the bottom of the stairs was what I now tend to think of as "The Lobby". I didn't rush down the stairs two at a time like Lara. I stepped gingerly onto one step and then waited, looking under the lintel with my hand held in front of my face and my wings wrapped around my body, emotional tears flooding down my face.
"Lords of the Sea and the Sun I beg you to forgive me," I whispered to myself over and over again, a mantra of terror.
I began to make out something in the gloom. It looked like a giant set of toes, resting on a giant sandal. As I got closer, I could see two feet, belonging to two figures, the right of one next to the left of the other. As I descended I could see that the two figures were standing to one side of the base of a gigantic pair of doors. I closed my eyes and sat down on the step, knowing that when I opened them I would be able to see the entire image and the entire entrance. There was no sound but the low throbbing buzzing, a sound that was being joined by the buzzing of light-headedness within me. I swayed where I sat trying to slow my breathing and watching the black and white squares kaleidoscoping on the inside of my tightly shut eyelids.
" Lords of the Sea and the Sun I beg you to forgive me."
My rational mind was trying to break through my panic. "No gateman has accosted you," it said. "No wrathful harbinger has come. No golden statue with the voice of a god has appeared to tell you to leave. This is not the tomb of an Atlantean Royal."
However another voice was wondering if this was the tomb of my sister Astarte.
I took a deep breath and peeked through my fingers at the colossal image.
"She was right."
On one side of the door, in archaic poses, were Qualopec and myself and on the other were Tihocan and Astarte. The portraits were ideals of our younger selves; Qualopec was as he had been as a young man, uninjured and straight limbed. We were dressed in our Royal Garments, our limbs posed in expressing of peace and power, with objects denoting our various areas of influence. Qualopec, Tihocan and myself were wearing our thirds of the Scions on golden chains around our necks, whilst Astarte held in one hand an image of the Tree Of The Crucified Attis and in the other a vaguely familiar circular object.
I got slowly to my feet and walked into the hall. Tearing my eyes away from the portrait of myself, I took in my surroundings.
The floor was scattered with the remains of alien body parts. Insectoid torsos jostled with grotesque black humanoid arms with horns instead of hands. Dismembered insect wings, some more than a foot in length, quivered in the draught as I passed. Baseball-bat-sized stingers were surrounded by dried green puddles of insect venom. The remains and the floor and the walls all gave out light, so that the entire "Lobby" was bathed in twilight.
I walked towards Lara who was sitting cross-legged next to a low mound of rocks and rubble.
"What is this?" I said, softly, since she didn't look up.
Lara looked sombrely at me, her jaw clenched shut and her eyes dark with a wounded expression.
"The last time I came here," she said, in a husky voice, "I had a companion with me. I didn't have the strength to carry him away when I left."
I gestured at the hall. "There would appear to have been some fighting," I said.
Lara glanced at the battlefield. "Not all us," she said, her voice resonating with what I suspected was a kind of guilt. "I think that even before us and the Nazis there were other pilgrims."
"And where are the guardians now?"
Lara got to her feet and brushed herself off.
"There, and up there," she said, pointing.
Near the ceiling at each side where what looked like the cannon hatches on an antique battleship, whilst at ground levels were iron gates with a deep darkness behind them.
She took me by the arm and lead my back so that we were facing the giant doors.
"Above the doors is some script, written in gold, " she said. "I cannot read it."
I dashed some fresh tears from my eyes. The text was in High Atlantean, the symbols shifting slightly depending on precisely which angle I viewed them from.
"The main script reads 'The Temple Of The Chariot Of The Gods'," I said. "Beneath that it says 'Re-sanctified by Astarte of Atlantis. Only the pure may enter'."
Lara was gazing at me. "And who exactly is Astarte of Atlantis?"
I turned to her, not trying to disguise my emotions. "My long lost sister," I said.
Once there had been a rather steep-sided valley hidden somewhere between the sharp peaks of a mountain chain. Then millennia ago, someone had converted it into a closed space, roofing it over with stone to create an architecture like that inside a Gothic cathedral. Time had passed and the roof had started to fall in, exposing the contents to the weather. Then ... the site had been rediscovered, presumably by Astarte, and the roof had been patched up with newer materials. Although impossible to undo all of the ravages of time - both the far end and one side of the structure was still collapsed - an area the size of a Zeppelin hanger had been renovated, like a city street in an archaeological site. It was almost as if we were standing on the brink of the oldest tourist attraction on earth, except that the site was - as the plaque outside explained - 're-sanctified', and so we were on holy ground.
As the doors fully opened, music started up. I recognised it as a hymn with words written by Astarte and set to music by Tihocan. Fresh tears began to fall.
Lara glanced at me, putting down her weapon.
"It's a racket," she said, "but it's not that bad."
"I'm not in the mood for your frivolity," I said quietly. I disconnected my fireball launcher and laid it just inside the entrance.
"Is that wise?"
"It's respectful. Think of Westminster Abbey. Would you wear your guns in there?"
Lara raised an eyebrow. "I once had to," she said. "Evil doers don't always observe the niceties."
"You do what you like," I said.
My eye was caught by a little structure to our immediate right as we entered.
"What does this say?" said Lara, pointing to a notice above a rack of what looked like conch shells.
"'Audio Tour'", I said.
I lifted one of the couch shells and found it was attached to a bracket for resting over one's head. "In Atlantean."
"And this?" Lara was pointing to another notice over a second rack of shells.
"I don't know that word," I said, squinting at the text. "Phonetically it sounds a bit like ... 'houyhnhnm'?"
Frustratingly both for you and me I can't remember the exact text of the 'Audio Tour' - possibly because at the time I was frightened out of my wits and expecting to come face to face with an Olympean any second - but I can remember the broad highlights.
Lara had tried a second conch shell but after a moment she put it down, remarking that it sounded like a child doing an impression of horse whinnying.
Walking around to our left, we were directed to plinth topped by a grey slab, two foot square at the end and seven foot long.
"These," said the tour, "are the remains of the pilot of the Kastor, Auriga Pha�ton Hippeios."
There was a flickering of light within the grey slab, and suddenly we could see, lying inside, a prone body. It was a humanoid figure, clad inside what looking like an armoured spacesuit.
"Look at the head," said Lara.
The space helmet of the corpse was horse-headed. Inside one could just make out some jutting equine incisors and wisps of mummified hair.
"Captain Phaeton, peace be upon him, gave his life bringing the Chariot of the Gods to a safe haven," said the tour.
I translated for Lara.
"Isn't this whole place supposed to be ''The Temple Of The Chariot Of The Gods'?" she said. "Is this it?"
"Is what it?"
"Well .. look around us. One corpse in a box and a big pile of rubble."
I did look around, pulling off my headphone. Secretly I had to admit that she appeared to have a point. There was a hint of 'side chapels' along the left side of the 'cathedral', but as she said - it mostly appeared to be filled with a pile of giant boulders.
"Maybe this whole place was built for this one sacred body," I suggested. "It's not unknown. Look at the Taj Mahal."
"The Taj Mahal's empty," said Lara, doubtfully. "But maybe that's it. Maybe this place was built and never used."
"Then why would Astarte renovate it?"
"To make money out of gullible Atlantean tourists?"
I shielded my eyes and looked up at the right wall. There was some odd about the rubble, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
"Notice how some of the original roof still remains above the rock fall," I said. "How is that possible?"
Lara was squinting too, and she produced a rifle night-sight.
"That's weird," she said. "You know how stalactites ... can form themselves over other objects?"
"Given enough time."
"I can see at least one stalactite that drops down near the wall ... and then drapes over the curve of those boulders. And there's another. Surely the rock fall came afterwards ... after the formation of the wall? Not before. I don't get it."
We were both scratching our heads.
"Wait here a moment," I said, eventually. "I have an idea."
I took to the air, flapping my wings so that I rose up into the 'nave' of the 'cathedral'. Maybe there was something about the perspective from where we had been standing, but as soon as I started to rise I realised that our 'cathedral' was at least ten times bigger than any human-built one.
By about a hundred feet, I was beginning to be able to take in the whole of the rock fall at one side and at the far end of the edifice. Higher I flew ... and a bit higher ... and then suddenly I saw it. I almost fell out of the air with shock. I didn't even notice as the conch headphones fell from my fingers, no doubt to shatter on the floor far below.
What we had perceived as rock fall was the remains of one gargantuan black object, an object that the cathedral had been built around.
I was looking at the stylised shoulder, neck and head of a horse. It had various holes and scars and burn marks and even what looked like windows set into its skin. Its outline was more of an idea of a horse's head - a streamlined version, a smoothed out version - like the head of the White Horse of Uffington or of a horse glyph on a Celtic coin.
My intuition immediately told me what it had to be.
I spiralled down and down to land, and then stood with my hands on my knees, recovering my breath.
"What?" said Lara, jogging up.
I laughed, shaking my head with disbelief. "It's the wreck of a huge spacecraft," I said.
"You must be joking."
"Presumably a part of the vessel known as the Chariot Of The Gods."
Lara was gazing up at the remains, hands on hips.
"That is literally awesome," she said.
Obviously I couldn't stop her, but I was damned if I was going with her.
"It reminds me somewhat of a wreck called the Maria Doria," she'd said. "Only bigger."
I was fumbling in my pocket for my phone. "Have you got a mobile?"
I heard her snort. "What sort of mobile works when you're deep in a tomb?"
"Half an hour and I'm leaving and taking the Learjet with me!"
Lara was already swinging a grappling hook in the distance.
"Good luck with that," she shouted back.
"I mean it. You'll be alone in here!"
"Excellent!" she said and began to climb up the side of the Kastor. "My school report cards ... always said ...doesn't play well with others." I lost sight of her as she scrambled over the upper edge.
I set the timer on my mobile.
I decided that I might as well walk down to the end of the 'cathedral' and back, and check out the 'side chapels', although I'd have much rather have left. I debated going back for another "Audio Tour", but decided that I'd already ingested far too much information for one day.
I was constantly aware of the 'neck' towering to my right as I strolled, and the 'shoulder' ahead of me in the distance. I began to relax. What sort of death trap has an audio tour, I said to myself?
The hymn was still playing in the background - it was on some sort of eternal loop - and I found myself first humming and then singing along. I reproduce some of the lyrics below, although since translated from Atlantean they are missing rhythm, metre, assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, metonymy or euphony.
The great Lord of the Sea
When she was mourning the loss
Of her daughter
The goddess took the form of a horse
And hid amongst the herds
Where Poseidon as a stallion
Raped the goddess
She bore him two children
The horse Areion and the nameless Goddess
For them Diwo made one twin
The other Dioskouros, Demeter
I became aware of two other sounds as I walked; a sort of tapping sound like a loose blind in a breeze, and a sort of watery sound, like the sea. Typical damp cave sounds.
I'd never really listened to the words before; one often tends to sing hymns with paying attention to the 'lyrics'. However when I got to the verses -
They put Kastor and Polydeukes
In the sky, a sun chariot
Phaeton at the wheel lost control
And Kastor fell down dazed
But Poseidon has rescued them
For he gave them horses to ride
And the power and the duty
To aid shipwrecked mankind
- I suddenly focused on what I was singng, and stopped. It was ironic, but maybe I'd known the story all along but I'd not being paying attention. After all, I'd always been much more interested in science than Astarte's re-creations of 'history' in the form of new religions.
I realised that the tapping was getting louder as I approached one of the 'side rooms' and, stopping my singing, began to tiptoe instead. I peeked around the corner.
The room was bare except for a rather shiny looking throne. Lying at full length on the floor was a tall golden figure, metallic-looking. The tapping sound came from one outstretched hand, reaching towards the throne. Reflected in the mirrored back of the throne I could see its face, and it was looking straight at me.
I jumped back and took a few deep breaths. It hadn't got to its feet or said anything to me, and so my heart soon slowed.
I approached cautiously, circling well out of range of that tapping finger, until I could see its face straight on. It appeared to be a statue, or else a human in a suit of armour, with a face or a visor that looked exactly like Heinrich Schliemann's Mask of Agamemnon. However, instead of ears, this being had two rectangular tubes that emerged from the sides of the head and then re-entered at the sides of the neck. I estimated it to be about seven foot tall.
I crouched down and its eyes followed me. It was making a whispering or a hissing sound.
I debated going any closer. I took the out-stretched hand in my own. It was like a gauntlet of gold, heated from within, though whether the heat was from a body or from a mechanism I could not say. The creature did not have the strength to return my grasp.
I leaned down and placed my ear near to the slot of its mouth.
"Greetings to the Most Royal Natla," came the whispering voice, "whose Imperial Wings provide shelter to her children from the midnight wind and the midday sun."
"Greetings to you," I replied in Atlantean, "oh fallen golden one in the Temple Of The Chariot Of The Gods. By what name should I respectfully address you?"
"The honour is all mine, Your Majesty. My name is Amboulios and I am the curator."
"And how do you recognise me, Amboulios?"
"You are the mirror image of your sister, the Goddess Astarte. Only one of a similar closeness of blood could have entered this holy place."
"Why are you lying here?"
"I am drained of life force," whispered Amboulios. "I was unable to return to my chair after the midnight wind came down."
"What is this 'midnight wind'?"
"It cuts through rock and douses all electrical activity, draining batteries and nullifying charge. It comes from beyond the sheltering sky, whose shelter wears thin. One vicious storm, maybe twenty years ago, felled me as I ran."
I examined it from top to toe. It seemed mostly mechanical, but there were hints of a biological component.
"Forgive me, venerable servant," I said, and gently unplugged one of its neck tubes. The orifice that was left looked almost human, although embedded in gold. It gave me an idea.
"I will be but a small while, faithful Amboulios," I said, and flying back to the giant doors - now closed - retrieved the bioelectric Electrophorus generator from my fireball hurler. When I held the tendrils that habitually plugged themselves into me near to Amboulios, they snuffled around the neck hole and then burrowed in with every sign of satisfaction.
I helped it to its feet and thence to his throne.
"Tell me of Astarte," I said.
"The Goddess spends half her time in heaven with her consort Diwo and half her time here with her priests," said Amboulios.
I recalled an ancient anecdote I'd had from Astarte, an aeon ago in Atlantis. She had been telling me about her mysterious night time visitor; "He said that his name was Diwo, Lord of the Daylight Sky, and that he had come down from the heavens to be with me, having espied my beauty from afar and been inflamed by the sight of my straight limbs and dark gaze. Furthermore he explained that the secrecy surrounding our love play was to protect me from the vengeance of his heavenly consort, Diwija of the Cow-like Eyes. Naturally I banned him from my bed on the instant and he, perhaps too readily, agreed."
I had been unsure at the time if this was just another of Astarte's visions, one of her weird half-waking hallucinations brought on by her religious obsessions. It hadn't seemed that important then, but now ... ?
Amboulios had last seen her (it thought) twenty eight years ago, although it admitted that its grasp of time, due to lapsing in and out of consciousness, was precarious. So ... circa 1983, I calculated. Maybe Astarte really had been on earth in 1979 when the golden statue had addressed me on the beach in Cyprus?
"The Goddess rode the Dais of the Twins and has not returned since ... to my knowledge."
"I doubt that she would have left her faithful servant sprawled and helpless in the dust," I said.
Amboulios held its gauntlet up to where its ear might have been. "I still hear it," it said. "It was never shut down."
"Hear what?" I said, stiffening.
"The Dais of Gemini. Can you not hear the sound of the sea?"
I tuned in to the watery sound that I heard earlier.
"This device," I said, unable to prevent a certain tension entering my voice. "The Goddess Astarte ascends to heaven with it? And yet it has been left on? By whom, good Amboulios?"
"I only caught a glimpse, reflected in the throne."
"And how did this intruder get in here?"
"Either by using the Royal Blood Key at the door, or else by taking advantage of a storm of the midnight wind, when all security has failed."
"I shall investigate," I said, patting its metal fingers, "and at very least will turn off the power."
"I would be eternally grateful, Your Majesty," said Amboulios. "I have had an unbearable, immeasurable age of listening to the rush of waves and it has almost un-minded me."
I almost ran to the site of the sound and the light on the ground showed the Dais. There was a vertical ring within a circle of menhirs, the centre looking like Galadriel's mirror and the rocks pulsing with green veins of energy.
I approached the control podium, where the power source (which Lara had nick-named "Excalibur") was inserted into the stone.
I guessed ... assumed ... that the Dais of the Twins was the same as those that had borne both me to the Underworld and Amanda to the past, designed to carry a traveller not from location to location or from time to time, but from person to person, royal relative to royal relative, activated only by the presence of the Royal Gene.
"Thus allowing my intellectually challenged offspring to visit her long dead sisters," I mused.
Suddenly I began to wonder how Astarte managed it. I could feel myself beginning to frown. After all, there was nobody here in the temple for Astarte to "travel" to, no "destination". No clone. No distant descendent.
Except, at that moment ...
I saw a figure beginning to coalesce. It was dressed in a kilt and was wearing a conical head dress.
"At last," said a voice that I hadn't heard in millennia. "My beloved Royal Sister ..." The toes of a human foot clad in a simple sandal began to step through the aperture.
I didn't wait. I wrenched the "Excalibur" from its housing. Instantly the power died and the figure disappeared. I inserted the blade of the power unit into a cleft in the rocks and snapped it in half, showering myself with sparks, and discharging lightning bolts into the walls.
I left that place like winged Mercury. I retrieved my power source from Amboulios, who was still too weak to stand unaided, and whose plaintive questions I ignored.
"One of my distant family is here in the Temple, inside the Kastor," I said.
"Inside the Kastor?" I heard Amboulios' horrified tones behind me as I ran.
"Lara Croft. Look after her when she emerges and do not try to fight her, or she will kill you."
"But Your Highness ...!"
I half ran, half glided for the exit, shouting for Lara, warning her that I was leaving, but there was no response. The giant doors slammed behind me and I hurried that long mile down the trapezoidal train tunnel without pausing.
I leaped for the rope ladder and hauled myself through the hole in the ceiling like a winged monkey. I pulled the ladder up after me and slammed the Nazi hatch shut, dogging it so that it was firmly locked.
"Forgive me," I whispered.
If I'd thought about it, I'd have realised that there must be other entrances to the underground city, but I was in a flat panic.
There was a blizzard outside the cave, but the white hotness of my preoccupations helped me to find the Learjet without even noticing.
The voice from the Dais and the voice from behind the mask of Amboulios had been the same voice, not distinctly male or female. Maybe the curator was the destination, and my fears of a trap had been unfounded, but I wasn't hanging around to find out.
I created a takeoff ramp of half-melted ice on the glacial slope leading down from the plane by firing salvos of fireballs at the ground, my very own skating rink. I saved the last remnants of fire to thaw the jet engines, leaving them sputtering and flaming as if hit by anti-aircraft bullets, and throwing aside my wings, climbed into the pilot's cockpit.
The Learjet turned jerkily on its axis through 180 degrees and then picked up speed as I opened the throttles. It skidded down the slope and then hit a bump - we were fortunate perhaps not to simply fall into a crevice - and then we were airborne, climbing away from the surface of the Neptune Glacier. I engaged the avionics and the autopilot.
I stumbled back into the cabin and fell on my face. "Cruel is the strife of brothers ... and sisters," I murmured, and fainted clean away.