1. NATLA ATGAACGCGTATCTCGCG...
It was a few days after my thirty-first birthday. I was sitting cross legged by the side of a field on the Croft Estate in the cool pre-dawn, shotgun resting against my thighs. The air was still and clean and damp and smelt of that best of all smells, the green English countryside at night. Slowly the sky became more grey and the shadows of hillocks, and tufts of grass ahead of me began to solidify into three dimensional shapes.
I knew that they liked to come out with the first rays of the sun. I'd taken the precaution of stationing myself upwind of the warren in a place where I wouldn't make a silhouette against the sky. I waited.
I saw a head poke out of the ground just as the first rays of the sun cleared the horizon. He sniffed the air and I could see his ears scanning all directions like radar. He decided that it was 'all clear' and so a bunch of them suddenly appeared. The younger ones were about the size of kittens and they frisked and leapt and chased. The oldest one remained sat up on his hind legs, wrinkling his nose suspiciously.
I brought the shotgun up to my shoulder and aimed. I got one of them with one barrel and winged another with the second as it was dashing for shelter, white tail flashing. I walked over. The first was dead, but the second was writhing and squealing. "Sorry about that, old chap," I said, and broke its neck to end its misery.
Don't get me wrong. I love rabbits. But it is also true that as well as tasting very good in one of Winston's pies they make excellent target practice. I picked them up and, by threading the left leg of each rabbit through the bones of the right, hung the carcasses on the barrel of my gun. Then I prepared to stroll home.
I walking past one of my government sponsored fields of oil seed rape when a couple of tatty looking vans can rumbling down the track. I stepped into the shadow of a bush and watched.
A crowd of young people wearing white environment suits scrambled out. They looked a little bit like Viz's Spoilt Bastard. They had lights, large bags marked "Biohazard", shears and a video camera. A rather earnest looking young woman stood in front of the "Experimental Crop" sign and began to 'do a piece to camera'. Apparently they were called Genetic Bollox and they had taken a dislike to my crop.
I stepped out of the shadows, freshly loaded gun under one arm and rabbits dangling from my other hand.
"Good morning," I said. "Can I help you?" The video camera swung in my direction.
The rather earnest girl out a faint shriek when she saw me. "You shot those rabbits," she said.
I held up the rabbits. Blood was dripping from them. "Well it's easier than boring them to death," I said.
"Murderer," she said.
"Murderer with a loaded shotgun," I said.
"Do you realise that you are poisoning the environment with these plants?" asked a young man.
"I admit that that oil seed rape is rather aesthetically unpleasing," I said. "I'd rather have had barley, but the money is good."
"These plants are genetically modified," he said. "Dangerously toxic pollen is being spread all over the countryside."
"Well I sympathise with hay fever sufferers," I said, "but business is business."
"You being deliberately obtuse."
"This is my estate," I said, mildly. "I'll be as obtuse as I please. And you're all trespassing, by the way."
They decided to ignore me after that and dashed over the fence into the field. They began to stuff armfuls of oil seed rape into their Biohazard bags as if their lives depended on it.
An Englishwoman's castle is her home and all that, so I shot out the windscreens of their vans. After a moment's shocked horror and a hurried discussion, they carried on harvesting. They had balls, I'll give them that. So I shot a couple of them instead.
I was at breakfast a few days later when a strange package arrived. I was busy reading the Times, when Winston came in, carrying the parcel on his bullet proof silver salver. He was wearing his old ARP helmet and a flak jacket.
"What's that?" I said, putting down my bacon sandwich.
"It was left outside the front door, Miss," said Winston. He put it down gingerly in the fire place so that it was shielded on three sides by brickwork.
"And why are you carrying it like that?"
"I just thought, after you wounded those protesters the other day ..."
I laughed. "Don't be silly," I said. "They weren't the ALF." I crouched down and looked at the parcel. What I saw made me draw in my breath sharply.
"Miss?" said Winston. "Should I call the bomb squad?"
"I don't think so," I said. "Tell me - have you mislaid your reading glasses again?"
Stamped onto the parcel was the hydrogen atom logo of Natla Technologies.
I unwrapped the parcel gingerly out in the firing range, wearing protective clothing and using some of Winston's yard long cutlery. Inside was a laptop computer, the same sleek black machine that Natla had used to hire me for the Scion expedition. Gingerly I pushed open the screen.
"Hi there Lara," said that familiar low American voice. "Great to see you again."
Natla was looking well, in a Sonnenkinden sort of way. Her hair was very blonde and her tanned skin was very smooth. She laughed, showing perfectly pearly teeth, and waited.
"Is it some sort of programme?" I whispered to Winston.
"I've no idea, Madam," he said. "The last computer that I tried to use was the Pong console and I couldn't fathom that."
"Hey Lara," said Natla. "You're live. Switch on the camera."
I hesitated. "How do I do that?" I said, pulling off my gloves.
"Use the mouse ball and click it on the video icon. Look for a red light next to that lens thing above the computer screen."
The mouse ball had been used by someone with a sweat problem; it was very greasy and smelt of body odour. The red light came on and I wiped my fingers on my thigh.
"There you are!" said Natla. "You haven't changed a bit. Bodacious as ever."
I ignored this. Natla's grasp of American slang was quirky at the best of times. "How did you get out of Atlantis?" I said.
Natla laughed and took a sip from a tall drink. "Well how did you get out, Lara?"
"I climbed out," I said.
"And I flew out."
"But I shot you."
"Bygones," said Natla, with an airy wave of her hand.
"What do you want?"
"I just thought you might dig a holiday. I wanted to invite you to join me here on my ranch."
I expect that a normal reaction to Natla's matter-of-factness would be to have been horrified. She was such a psychopath. I, however, was amused.
"Why on earth would I 'dig' that?" I said. "We're not exactly bosom buddies."
Natla smiled. "No reason why we shouldn't be," she said. "Bosom buddies, that is." Her eyes twinkled.
"We'd end up trying to kill each other."
"If I'm doing anything that seriously bums you out, you're welcome to try and kill me again. Until then I thought that we could be ... what's that English word? Mates?"
I wavered. If Natla was in another of her world altering moods eventually it would affect me.
"'Bums' me out?" I said.
"Don't say you're not curious."
I was curious. "Maybe I should check up on you," I said. "What's that other American phrase? - One is better being on thhe inside of the tent pissing out than on the outside of the tent pissing in?"
Natla laughed and clapped her hands. "You crack me up, Lara," she said.
Natla Technologies owned their own transatlantic jets, and despite that, I expect I could have got round the presence of my name and photo at all US custom posts simply by using Natla's patronage. Her ranch, Pajarito Mesa, was situated between an Indian reservation, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Santa Fe National Forest. Which was nearly impossible, in terms of planning permission and national security. As I understood it not even the President would have been able to build a residential and laboratory complex there, but maybe Natla was more powerful than that. Maybe she'd always owned the land.
A limo with the plates "JN24" picked me up from the tarmac and I amused myself with the icemaker and a bottle of Bourbon on the journey. Despite the fact that it had been a luxury jet, my back was stiff and my shoulders ached. It felt like I was developing some sort of rash over my shoulder blades and my bra strap chaffed.
From what I could see out of the window America was still too big. Even the wilderness looked a bit like a film set. The wild animals had probably all been documented and tagged for research projects, whilst their lairs and nests had been turned into covert film sets to supply endless 24 hour natural history footage for the Discovery channel.
Having applied some Dutch courage, I checked my arsenal. Over one shoulder I had my rocket launcher with shells in my backpack. In my thigh holsters I had put my Browning automatics, and I had my M16 slung over the other shoulder in case I had to bring Natla down from the air at a distance. I had my knife in my sock and my "first aid kit" in my bag. There wasn't too much I could do to stop her slinging fireballs at me, but my clothes were all made of fire-retardant material and my hair was tied in the tightest pigtail that my scalp could manage. I'd discovered young that nothing cramps the day more than a burnt fringe.
The limo drove up a long dusty road to a place that looked like a cross between South Fork and the Manhattan Project. A sign over the gateway read "Welcome to Parajito Mesa." I let the catch off my rocket launcher.
The chauffeur opened the door for me, and I stepped out, launcher on shoulder.
"Ms. Natla will be along to see you in a minute," said the chauffeur, politely. "Shall I take your bags into the house?"
"No thanks," I said.
"If there's nothing else I'll park the car," he said.
"Go ahead," I said.
The car drew off around the side of the building, leaving me standing in the hot sun. Then I heard a sound that I couldn't place immediately. Something about it gave me goosepimples. I scanned around me, trying to identify it. The house was silent and still, and the dry slopes of the valleyside were empty. The sound reminded me of the sail of a yacht moving in a gentle breeze, except that it was repeated rhythmically every second.
The sound grew quite loud and a small duststorm blew up. A shape descended from out of the sun and landed elegantly in front of me, folding her giant crimson bat wings.
"Phew!" said Natla, pulling off her vest with a tearing of velcro, and mopping her face with it. "Beats jogging any day."
We stood there - Natla in her sports bra, jogging bottoms and expensive trainers, and me with my rocket launcher - whilst a servant appeared from within the house with a jug of chilled drink.
"Thanks, Guy," said Natla. "Lara! It's lovely to see you. I'd give you a big hug ... have a drink of lemonade." She smiled like an orthodontist's wet dream. She looked as if she'd been taking lessons in a Hollywood charm school on how to "give face".
"I'm quite tempted to shoot you, Natla," I said. "Perhaps if you stopped grinning at me like that it would help."
Natla shrugged, her wings rustling. "OK, babes," she said.
"Babes, darling, sugar and honey buns are not appellations that I feel even remotely pleased about, Natla."
Natla choked on her drink and started laughing. "Honey buns? Bosom buddies? Is there a subtext here?"
"How do you think I'm looking? Pretty buff, eh? I must be the best advert for Grey Power in the state."
"I'm very not interested in the Californian cult of body worship. Neither of us are believable adverts for the 'beautiful is good' philosophy."
"Oh ho!" said Natla with a smile. "We are up on our high horse aren't we?"
I shuffled my feet, irritated, and took a firmer hold on the launcher. "So how are your plans for the human race going, Natla? Is evolution still in a rut?"
Natla shook her head in exasperation. "I really did invite you for a holiday," she said. "Can't we just have some fun?"
"Fun? That's like suggesting that I have fun in a cage full of hungry lions."
"But that is your idea of fun. Isn't it?"
I smiled slowly. I lowered the the rocket launcher and stepped forward, hand out-stretched.
Natla hugged me, her wings rustling around our ears. She brushed her lips near my ear.
"So lonely," she whispered.
For some reason I was starving, starving and exhausted. Maybe the long flight and the continual tension of being around Natla again was taking its toll. Maybe I was just getting old. My shoulders itched and ached. It felt like I had an allergic reaction over my shoulders blades, an itchy swelling. Maybe my immune system had finally developed an aversion to the States. I found that I couldn't stop eating. It was almost embarrassing, and I wondered for a second if I was pregnant again.
I was feeling so odd that I decided that if Natla was going to kill me, she might as well get on with and I wouldn't put up a struggle. As a result I relaxed.
"Do you like Glenmorangie?" said Natla, indicting a bottle of whiskey that Guy had brought in on a tray.
I actually thought that Glenmorangie had tasted a bit peculiar in recent years - I blamed acid rain - but I accepted a large glass.
"Cheers," said Natla, raising a glass of champagne, her wings folded gracefully behind her. "Lovely to have you here."
"May I smoke?" I said.
Natla laughed and started flinging open all of the windows and doors. "If you like I can screen you and tell you if you are unlikely to develop mouth and lung cancer," she said.
Guy came forward with a cigar clipper and then lit my Montechristo for me. "Thanks," I said, and smiled in spite of myself.
I told her about the Olympeans and my trip to Mars.
"That was close," said Natla. "Unpleasant people, I always thought. Obsessed with religion."
"One thing that you can't be accused of," I said.
"I'm strictly a science sort of gal," said Natla, with a twinkle in her eye.
"Quite," I said, trying not to smile.
Natla insisted we watched Psycho in her cinema. I didn't argue. I had a lot of scotch to drink, and Psycho is a personal favourite. It was easier than conversation.
"You know when they put that stuff on the Voyager spacecraft in case any aliens wanted to know about humans?" remarked Natla. "I think a copy of Psycho would have been most informative."
"It's quite a good metaphor for the 20th century," I said, "especially the murder in the shower. White tiles, sharpened steel and dark blood. Bodies wrapped in plastic and dumped in the boot of a car. Even the most blood thirsty soldier from earlier times would have been horrified at the emotionlessness and clinicalness."
"And then you could tell them about death camps and Death Row, and the bureaucracy of genocide," said Natla cheerfully. "Tihocan would have had a fit. He'd have the whole lot of you in stasis."
"Sometimes I wonder ..." I said, staring into my whiskey glass.
"I know," said Natla. She put her hand over mine. "Maybe we're outsiders ..."
"Maybe," I said. I must have been tired or drunk, because I put my other hand over hers. It was "intense", as they say.
Then at my instigation we watched the bit in The Birds when Tippi Hedren is cornered in the attic. I laughed with the sort of devilish glee that I reserve for horror films, but Natla looked pale. She'd frozen the DVD and rewound it to Hedren's face, which looked dazed with horror as the crows flew at her and she scrabbled behind her trying to find the handle of the attic door.
"Horrible," said Natla. Her hands were shaking. "Immaculate and in control, but then ... horrible."
When I awoke in the middle of the night in one of Natla's guestrooms, I knew that there was something wrong with me. My limbs ached very slightly and my back felt terrible.
I went into the bathroom and examined myself in the mirror. When I saw my shoulder blades I had to hold on to myself firmly. I hate sickness and I was on the verge of throwing up. There appeared to be two scarlet lumps over my shoulder blades. They looked like dislocated bone under skin or a very vicious allergic reaction.
I went over to the phone.
"Yes, Ms. Croft?"
"Who is this?"
"This is Nancy Coombs, Ms. Croft. In charge of the night staff."
"I think that I need a doctor."
"What seems to be the problem, Ms. Croft?"
I would have explained my personal medical history down the phone to a complete stranger but at that moment I fainted.
"Lara?" said Natla. "Wake up darling."
I was lying face down on a starched pillow in a brightly lit room. It felt as if there was some sort of contraption holding the sheets away from my back. Like a burn victim.
"Where am I?"
"In the clinic. Dr. Morfitt says that you're doing very well."
"You're doing very well," said a pudgy bespectacled individual in a lab coat. He seemed rather in awe of Natla.
"What happened?" I said. "What's happened to my back?"
Natla and Dr. Morfitt glanced at each other, Natla smiling and Dr. Morfitt going through the motions of a smile.
"There's been a bit of a ... how do we put it, Dr. Morfitt?"
"Erm ... an occurence. A medical occurence?"
"No shit," I said. "That would explain why I'm here in hospital then. It's not just an open day."
"Your genes have done something interesting," said Natla, crouching down and smiling winningly. She looked like a child who'd brought their parent breakfast in bed, anticipating praise but wondering if the burnt toast and cold tea would spoil it a bit.
I gave her a narrow stare. I would have leapt up, but I didn't know if I was hooked up to anything. "Genes, Natla?" I said, raising my eyebrows.
"Before you start - yes, it was me. But it's reversible, and I thought that you might like it. So don't go off on one."
I remembered the lap top computer. "You put stuff on the mouse ball of that PC you sent me, didn't you?"
Natla shuffled her feet. "It's a DMSO-based oil that delivers genetic material straight through the skin."
I shuddered and my whole body went cold.
"Dr. Morfitt," said Natla in a calming voice. "Could you wheel that mirror around here?"
There was a squeak of wheels.
"Have a look Lara," said Natla, lifting back the sheet.
I had a look. She'd given me wings.
2. RED BULL ...CGGGAGGACNNNNNNNCTCCTC...
The next few days were a little tedious. I wanted to kill Natla, of course, but I didn't feel well enough. I could have walked away from Pajarito Mesa, but I had a feeling that the wings would attract attention. Natla had a permanent look of patience on her face.
"Just try them out for a while and if you don't like them, I've got an excellent plastic surgeon," she said.
"You expected me to be pleased didn't you?" I said, sitting on a stool in one of Natla's velcro-fastened outfits, sipping tea.
"Not all at once," said Natla.
"Why shouldn't I kill you?"
"You need my surgeon."
"Why shouldn't I kill after you've fixed me?"
"Well there wouldn't be any point then, would there darling?" said Natla, reasonably.
The wings ... what were my first reaction to the wings? Several days passed and once I'd got over the shock and begun to feel better, I became curious. I'm no physiologist, but if one just grafts a pair of wings onto someone, they won't work. The muscle and nerve connections may well be there, but the necessary neuronal pathways in the brain will not be. If you sew a pair of legs onto a person who has been legless from birth, they will not be able to walk.
However the more I examined my wings, the more of a genius I realised that Natla must be. I could flap them, or fold and unfold them. I didn't think how to do it - I just good. Natla's genetic material must have reprogrammed my brain to have a new instinct for flight. If I flapped them vigorously it was exhausting, but I could lift my toes a few inches above the carpet. I found myself hovering in my room, giggling and gasping, with the curtains and bedclothes jerking in the breeze.
Secondly, there is no natural living thing with four limbs and two wings. Pegasus the flying horse doesn't count, and insects have more than two legs and a segmented torso. Natla had arranged it so that my arms still worked and that my shoulders and shoulder blades coped with two sets of limbs close together. It would have been interesting to see a X-ray of my upper half. My breasts were smaller - my whole body seemed smaller and lighter - but it all looked good. Anybody else but Natla would have won several Nobel prizes.
Another surprising thing about the wings was that they weren't feathery but leathery. Red and leathery, just like Natla's. As a result instead of feeling like a head of hair on a new pair of arms, as no doubt feathers would have felt, the wings were covered with sensitive skin. It was pleasureable to stroke them. There was a large "walk in" shower in my suite and I found myself gently soaping my wings, like a bird grooming itself. It felt very nice. Flapping the wings to dry them, and feeling the warm air flowing over such a large area of skin - well, it was almost indecent.
In spite of myself I found myself starting to admire Natla. She was brilliant, beautiful and powerful. And she wanted to be friends. I have a hard heart, but there are limits, and my tendency to treat potentially lethal situations as part of a jolly game wasn't helping. I began to wonder what else Natla had done to my head, aside from teaching me flight.
"Welcome to Natla Industries," said Natla, gesturing around the corporate water gardens. "King Nebuchadnezzar used to boast that it needed 300 gallons of water per day to keep his Hanging Gardens booming in the desert. This place needs twenty times that much."
The air was filled with the scent of flowers underlaid by the stench of orchids. Unfamiliar fluorescent insects buzzed between efflorescent flowers, whilst nearby vast Venus flytraps flexed their jagged jaws. Wild riffs of water captured rainbows from the harsh sunlight, and beneath the liana-draped banana trees kingfishers chased the flying fish who were chasing the dragonflies.
"Welcome to Natla's Fairy Grotto," I said. "Couldn't you have had a coloured river like they have in Debenhams?"
Natla laughed and placed a hand in my shoulder. "Oh come, Lara. Don't be a grouch. Admit it - it's fabulous."
"It's a fabulous demonstration of the wealth and power of Natla Technologies."
"Exactly," said Natla, pleased. "That's point. And it's more cuddley than a giant block of flats."
"Or a giant badly-lit pyramid containing walls that pulse with blood," I said.
"There you go then," said Natla clapping her hands. "Let's do a tour of the labs." I made a mental note to give up irony.
We drove a little electric cart into the main building. I was half expecting to see a Munchkin or an Oompa-Loompa.
"Have you heard of the Human Genome Project?" asked Natla.
"People with more money than sense (and with the instincts of stamp collectors) cataloguing every human gene in the hope of enlightenment?"
"That's the one," said Natla, cheerfully. "Well we have the complete genome of every species on the planet, even some of the extinct ones."
I looked at her. She looked smug. "All of them?" I said.
"Even T Rex," she said. "Although as you well know from your own experiences, T Rex is not extinct. But it gets even better."
"We have proteomes, transcriptomes, metabolomes, phenomes ..."
Natla laughed. "To cut a long story short, the remnants of ancient race of Atlantis possess more biological knowledge about this planet than you guys ever dreamt of."
We had reached a laboratory door that was situated in a long corridor of laboratory doors.
"Come and have a peek," said Natla. "Mind your wings."
A scientist was sitting looking at a dodo, notebook in hand. The dodo let out a squawk, and he made a note. The dodo defecated on the bench top, and he made another note.
Natla picked up a packet of bird food and tipped some into her hand. She made clucking noises. "Come here, my pretty," she coaxed, holding out her hand.
The dodo tried to lean over to feed without moving its feet. It overbalanced, rolled off the edge of the bench and landed on its head. There was a crunching noise.
Natla sighed and threw the bird food into the bin. "Never mind the ethics of bringing back extinct creatures," she said. "Some of them seem to deserve to be extinct."
Later we were in a large hall eating melted Ben and Jerry ice-cream out of the cartons.
"How have you managed to amass so much information in such a short time?" I asked.
"I've had a forty years head start," said Natla. "I had the human genome before Crick and Watson published their work on DNA. We had biological parallel processing computers working before you guys had transistors."
"So what on earth were you doing with the Scion?" I said.
Natla looked sheepish. "It's kind of hard to explain," she said.
Natla leaned back on the folded wings and steepled her fingers. She took a deep breath and gazed up at the ceiling. "Can you imagine," she said eventually, "what it would feel like to be blasted out of hibernation by an atomic bomb and then to find oneself in a world full of metal machines? My last memory was of shouting at Tihocan and Qualopec; I was still furious when I woke up alone in a radioactive desert. No troops, no servants, no Atlantean technology - I felt lost."
"What did you do?" I asked. "How did you manage - after the desert?"
"I was still wearing my gold and jewellery when they froze me, and my golden helmet of state. I wandered south and found myself in Mexico. I still had the power to discharge fire from my fingers. I mastered the language. I shepherded the money I managed to get. I invested. I bought the land that Pajarito Mesa stands on. The rest you know."
"Why all that mining to dig up Atlantis?"
Natla sighed. "I made a vow to find home," she said. "Seems silly now, but at the time ... maybe I wasn't thinking straight."
On the way out, we stopped by a display case. Inside, preserved, was one of Natla's blood red creations - a bull.
"One of the first things I made outside Atlantis," said Natla, softly, touching the glass. "My first attempt at something normal."
I looked at the red bull and wondered why Natla felt the need to make anything at all.
"There'll be a bit of a jerk as you're lifted off the ground," said Natla, handing me the water-skiing handle. She capped her hands and grinned excitedly. "Just remember to keep your wings unfurled."
The rope was laid on the desert in front of me and ended up wound around a large reel on the back of the beach buggy. Natla ran to her own ski rope.
"Ready?" said her voice over my earpiece.
"Go for it," I said into my helmet mike.
"Take it away boys!"
The beach buggies revved their engines and then lurched off. The rope cracked, almost jerking the handle from my gloved fingers and then I was airbourne. One wing must have been extended slightly more than the other for I did a three hundred and sixty spin in mid air. I concentrated as the warm air swept past my body and then I got the horizon back to horizontal.
"Whoa," said Natla's voice. "You'll be doing an Immelmann turn next."
"Funny," I said, breathlessly.
I felt myself climbing into the sky as the rope in front of my was paid out. The sun had already darkened my sunglasses and the desert stretched to the horizon all around us, austere and heart-achingly beautiful. How I love deserts. Nowhere else can a human feel such clarity of thought and emotion.
I furled the tip of one wig so that I veered sideways from the line of dust blown up by the buggies below me. It was like water skiing, but in three dimensions, and with no need for firm legs.
"Race you," said Natla.
"It'll rip my wings off if we go much faster."
"Nonsense," said Natla, laughing. "Just furl them. Reduce the surface area. Like a sail boat in a gale or a hawk diving."
"I'll have a go."
"Foot down" said Natla to the buggy drivers.
I could hear the wind through my helmet and I nearly let go of the handle. I put my head down like a competitor in the Tour De France and folded my wings. My speed relative to the ground didn't seem much different but I could feel it. I could feel it in my body. A wave of pleasure swept over me and I gasped.
"Yee haw!" shouted Natla. "They should make this a goddammed Olympic event."
I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was edging closer to me. Before, with our wings outstretched it would have been impossible, but now ...
"Give me your hand!" said Natla.
"I need both my hands."
"No you don't, not at this speed. Trust me."
"I'll tumble," I said.
"Not if you use your wings you won't."
I hesitated. If I fell, I reasoned, I could glide back to earth. "Bloody hell!" I said, and tentatively loosened the fingers of my right hand.
"Here - reach out to your side."
"Damn it," I said and flung out my arm. I would have gone into a hopeless spin the next moment but Natla grabbed my hand. We stabilised. I felt like Lois Lane.
"There you go, babes," said Natla. I could see her smiling at me. Her left wing was brushing against my right wing and I was intensely aware of it, as if I had burnt skin. Her fingers were warm in mine.
"This is ... gosh!" I said, to my embarrassment.
"Fucking A?" said Natla.
"Quite," I said.
Unfortunately at that moment I let go of my handle. I somersaulted in a clattering of wings and Natla let go of her handle as well. We fell. I screamed, but Natla laughed. She pulled me to her and wrapped herself around me so that we were face to face.
"Calm down and use your wings," she said, trying not to giggle. I did as I was told and suddenly we stopped falling. The four wings opened out on four sides and we began to drift gently downwards like an opened umbrella.
I found myself in a tight embrace with Natla, my eyes staring into her eyes. She smiled sweetly.
"Have I ever told you what gorgeous eyes you have?" she said, holding me closer. Our breasts were crushed together and our thighs intertwined. I felt dizzy.
"Lara?" said Natla.
"I heard you," I said, blushing. "About the eyes."
Natla leaned forward and kissed me gently on the lips. My mind tried to rationalise it. I'd been kissed by a girl before. At school. No big deal.
She kissed me again and stroked the fine hair on the nape of my neck with her fingers.
After we hit the ground we lay there in the red-tinted shade of our wings, kissing deeply.
All of a sudden I was in love.
3. HARPY TOWN ...CATGCCAGGCCCTACNACCNNNTGGAAT...
"The original Harpies were vultures with the heads and breasts of women," said Natla. "They stank, and contaminated everything that they touched. Not very appealing."
"So you've decided to Disney them up for your theme park," I said, smoothing a ruffle in her wing with my fingers.
"Not exactly," said Natla. She looked excited.
We were bumping up a track from the helicopter, surrounded by the semi-tropical vegetation of Isla Tibur�n. The Natla Technologies jeep had been given a jolly coat of paint and a logo that read "The Mythology Experience". We were approaching a giant wooden gateway topped with the same logo and flanked by searchlights. Natla pressed a remote control and the gates swung open. She giggled and glanced at me, eyes shining. I gave her my best kind smile.
"There's only one bit finished at the moment, but eventually we're going have centaurs and sphinxes and hydra. A Cyclops. A Medusa. It's going to be the greatest show on earth."
We followed a signpost that read "Harpy Town."
"It's amazing how much personality the Harpies have," Natla was saying. "They've been here just under a year, but already they have a council, a language ... even a religion."
"A religion?" I was amazed. "Not you, by any chance?"
Natla laughed. "No," she said. "They've created a god of sleep that we've nicked-named Morpheus. They've even built a sort of statue to it."
"Why a god of sleep?"
"It's an extremely sensible choice, given their circumstances. You'll see."
We were entering a town square. Two things about it immediately struck me as strange. The buildings were all very ponderous, with tiny grated windows and thick stone walls. The wall and the rooms were decorated in a way that looked like a herd of wild cats had been using them to sharpen their claws. Every external surface was scoured with vicious looking scratch marks.
The second odd thing was the statues. There were grotesque stone figures everywhere, most of them facing the east, and frozen in snarling postures of defiance. They were about ten feet tall, and winged, with taloned feet and brutally clawed hands. Their skins were grey and scaled, and their faces were like gargoyles.
Natla stopped the jeep. "Welcome to Harpy Town," she said "What do you think?"
I looked around at the building and the statues. "Very picturesque," I said. "Well done." I kissed her on the cheek.
"You don't get it, do you?"
"After dark, these things ..." she gestured at the statues "... come to life."
"Oh," I said. I should have known from my previous encounters with Natla's centaurs that she had a knack for making animals that could freeze like statues.
"The sunlight activates photosensory apparatus in their skins and that starts off a signal cascade that leads to paralysis. Most of their muscles lock up into a rictus, and their bodies go into hibernation."
"And their minds?"
Natla looked a little sheepish. "We think that they may retain some consciousness. A bit of a slip-up in my design there. That might be why they are so bad-tempered when they wake up, and why they call on the god of sleep for protection. During daylight a small child could kill them with a penknife and they'd be unable to do anything about it. And they know it."
I walked over to a Harpy, and reached up to touch its chest. I wanted to tell Natla how cruel she'd been, but she was like a child with a crap drawing looking for approval from a parent.
"And you reckon people will pay to see this?" I said, eventually, looking into the Harpy's reddish eyes for signs of life.
"Are you kidding, babes?" said Natla. "Just you wait 'til the sun goes down."
Natla had locked the jeep into a fortified garage and we'd taken up residence in the one of the buildings.
"Welcome to Hotel California," said Natla.
The house was like a ski lodge built by Teutonic knights, luxurious, in a claustrophobic kind of way.
"It's self catering I'm afraid, but they should have left us some stuff in the fridge," said Natla. "Let's have a look."
We had a look. There was a tureen of chilled ham and artichoke soup, smoked salmon envelopes, poitrine of duck, pigeon and beetroot compote, green Thai curries, creamy veal crepes, Florida and Waldorf salads, delicately scented steamed rice, fresh sorbets, loganberry fool and Minnesota cheeses.
"Are we expecting company?" I said.
Natla giggled. "Open this," she said, passing me a magnum of Bollinger.
"You realise that we're only here for one night," said Natla. "The day after tomorrow is the eclipse. We'd be stuck indoors."
"I didn't know you could see it from here," I said. "I thought that it was passing over St. Kitts and Nevis."
"It's partial, but that will be enough for the Harpies."
"And I went and left my piece of smoked glass back in England."
Natla showed me a large viewing room, with lots of television screens in it.
"We've got cameras all over the place, even in the Temple of Morpheus."
"Temple?" I said.
"OK," said Natla. "So it's a large cave with a blobby pile of rocks in that looks vaguely like a human figure."
"Do they shelter in there during the day?"
"I installed floodlights."
I looked at her. "Why?"
"I couldn't really take people on the tour in there with active Harpies around, could I? The lights come on in synch with the sunrise."
"Very practical" was the most polite thing that I could think of to say.
Later we were sitting a sofa drinking more Bolly. I managed to persuade Natla to allow me to smoke a cigar; unable to open the windows she was wafting the smoke away with a hand-held electric fan whilst wearing a cycling mask.
"It seems strange ..." I began.
"What?" said Natla.
"You have all this scientific knowledge, and yet the first application that you come up with is a leisure activity designed to make money."
Natla laughed. "It's the American way," she said. "It was that or create a new weapons system."
"Joking aside," said Natla, "there was no alternative. Can you imagine me going to the FDA or some other government agency and telling then that I have a cure for cancer which I developed using ancient Atlantean knowledge?"
"Couldn't you skip the Atlantean bit?"
"Maybe," said Natla. "However you have to realise that my cure for cancer wouldn't be based on a drug or a pharmaceutical agent. It would involve gene therapy and messing around with the human genome. I'd be about as popular as Galileo."
"I'd have to submit my original research - impossible. I'd have to deal with organised religion and pharmaceutical multinationals - impossible. I could try giving my information away, but nobody would believe how advanced it is. They'd dismiss it as science fiction and lock me up."
"So, basically, you could save the human race from disease and starvation, but you can't."
"Ironic, isn't it?" said Natla, with a smile. "That's why I decided to create The Mythology Experience. People can cope with science if it is presented like Disneyland. Or that's what I'm hoping."
I exhaled some smoke rings. "Good luck."
"I need your help, Lara," said Natla, brushing a stray hair away from my face.
"In what way," I said, touching her hand.
"I need you to tell me what is morally acceptable."
I burst out laughing. "Me?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, you. You were brought up human. I was brought up divine. Goddesses don't really have much use for ethical dilemmas. They want it, they just do it. In my world only might is right."
"You want me to be the conscience of the human race? I'm just not qualified. You need a cleric or an academic."
Natla snorted. "Now you're just being silly. Most of them couldn't find their own ass with a map."
"I'm not qualified," I said.
"But think of it. You'd have the power of a god at your disposal. Want to cure a disease? - it's done. Want to create a new animal? - it's done. Want to live forever? - it's done. Want to be richer than Creosus? - it's done. Want to end war? - it's done."
"What about the FDA?"
"One day, people will appreciate me whether they want to or not," said Natla.
I fiddled with my wing tips. "The power of a god, eh?" I said.
"You already have the wings of an angel," said Natla and kissed me.
Over her shoulder I saw a movement on one of the TV screens. The Harpies were beginning to stir in the dusk.
The Harpies were singing to their statue now that the lights had been turned off. At at least that's what it seemed like. They had two registers of voice - a low continuous basso note and an arabesque treble. It sounded like the Byzantine chant from L'Eglise de Rome. Natla turned up the woofers and the floor rumbled.
"You say they have language," I said. "What are they singing?"
"I can't translate exactly, but I think that they are asking the god to bring sleep to their enemies," said Natla. "That's what they always sing."
"That's where you got the name Morpheus from?"
Natla zoomed the camera into the faces of the "congregation". Some were slavering and clapping their jaws like starving dogs within sight of food. Others were beating their wings on the floor and slapping themselves about the head. Some appeared to be weeping.
"Are that one there crying?" I asked, pointing to one of them.
"All animals cry," said Natla. "It lubricates the eyes." She switched the monitors off.
For a moment there was silence and then I began to be aware of strange sounds.
"What in God's name is that?" I said, unnerved.
There was drumming on the roof and the sound of nails screeching down window panes. There was an immense flapping of wings are if a flock of birds was flying overhead mixed with yells, and howls of rage.
"Come," said Natla, taking my hand. "There's a panoramic window upstairs."
We entered a shuttered room. Natla pressed a button and the lights dimmed to a dull red, like a photographic dark room. The shutter whispered up into a recess to reveal a heavily armoured window, criss-crossed with fine metal mesh.
"Sit," said Natla, handing me a drink.
I was halfway through taking a sip when a large shape flew towards me out of the darkness, smashing against the glass. I half leaped to my feet, spilling the drink over myself.
"Shhh!" said Natla.
One after another the Harpies were flinging themselves against the glass. Their faces were distorted, and they roared at us. They scrabbled at the windows and pounded at it with their fists, but fell away, unable to gain a purchase. I winced as another huge body crashed into the window right in front of me. I saw that Natla was watching me.
"What do you think?" she said, putting a hand on my knee. Her eyes were troubled. "You hate it, don't you?"
"I ... it disturbs me," I said.
"Is it any different to a zoo?"
"In zoos, the tigers don't fling themselves at the bars all days trying to eat the visitors," I said. "I'm no lover of tigers - I've shot enough - but even I wouldn't like to see them suffering in a cage."
Natla nodded, soberly. "So you don't think that people will like my Harpies?"
I took her hands and stroked her cheek. "I think they'll love them," I said. "But is that the point?"
Natla smiled to herself for a long moment. She seemed sad. "OK, darling," she said, eventually. "I'll set them free."
"I'll cure their daylight paralysis. I'll seal off the islands and set up a system to bottle them in, but I'll leave them to live out their natural lives. They'll die out soon enough."
I was overcome with fondness. Maybe she really was trying her best in an alien world. I kissed her.
"Put up the shutters and let's go to bed," I said.
As I awoke I realised that we both must have slept very heavily. I smiled secretly and curled my toes. Worn out, I thought. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was nearly midday.
Natla was lying in my arms, with her back to me. Her blonde hair was scattered over my face and lips, and her wing covered me like a warm electric blanket heated by blood. I nuzzled her neck and savoured the feeling of us, together, touching. My skin felt sensitive. I found myself wondering if this was how Samson had felt after Delilah had cut all his hair off. I felt emotionally open, happy, but weak. My habitual cynicism had melted away under Natla's kisses and it was an unnerving feeling. If a goose had said "boo" to me at that moment I'd have run away, crying.
Natla stirred and turned over in a tangle of wings. She was drooling. "Mmmph," she said.
"Good morning, darling," I whispered.
She didn't respond.
"Morning, cutie," I said, again.
"Morning," mumbled Natla, but she smiled the smile of someone who's first waking sensation is one of happiness.
We kissed and cuddled a bit.
Suddenly I sensed Natla's eyes opening wide. She screamed with horror and fell out of bed.
"What?" I said, scrabbling to my knees and taking a pistol from the bedside take. "What is it?"
Natla was pointing, shaking. I looked, and almost let off a round of bullets before I could stop myself. The small armoured window to the bedroom had been broken in. Jammed into the opening was a vicious looking Harpy, claws reaching into the room. It had frozen in mid-entry.
"Thank God we decided to leave the light on," I said.
"It's not funny," said Natla. "How the fuck did that get in here?"
I reached out to her with one hand and tried the light switch with the other. The light was no longer working. I looked at the clock on the bedside table. It had stopped at sunrise.
"We were lucky," I said. "They just ran out of time."
Natla got to her feet and embraced me like a small child seeking solace.
"They tried to get me," she said.
"Don't worry, babes," I said. "Let's get dressed."
Downstairs, everything seemed quiet. I wasn't expecting any active Harpies, but I kept my weapon drawn. Natla's fingers were sparkling as if she was going to let fly with a fireball at any second. Her wings twitched, poised for flight.
The front door looked as if it had nearly been battered in.
"I don't understand," said Natla. "How could they have done so much damage in one night?"
"When are we supposed to be leaving?"
"I would be expecting a call from the helicoptor pad some time this afternoon."
"Let's grab some food," I said, "and go down there and meet them. It's a nice sunny day."
I pulled open the door. A team of Harpies were lined up outside, tools in hand. They were frozen, looking up at Natla's bedroom window. They had been watching our intruder as the sun rose. For creatures that had been defeated by daylight, they looked remarkably cheerful.
The town looked as if it had been hit by a storm. We went around the house to Natla's fortified garage. The doors had been staved in and Natla's jeep had been half burned, half dismantled.
"Have we any other vehicles?" I said, trying the light switch. There was still no electricity.
"No," said Natla.
I put a hand on each of her shoulders and smiled.
"Look's like we're going for a walk," I said.
"I'm glad you're here."
"Why are you so freaked? You've been around your own creations before."
"They didn't try to kill me," said Natla. "I feel as if someone is walking over my grave. It's all a bit too Frankenstein for my liking."
"A nice cup of tea and then a brisk walk in the fresh air," I said. "Just what the doctor ordered."
It took about half an hour to hike to the giant entrance gate to the Mythology Experience. The gate had been demolished. Clustered around it were a group of frozen Harpies, trying to pull at the timbers.
"What's that noise?" said Natla, holding up her wrists as if about to unleash a fire ball. She scanned all around us at the dark trees.
"It's coming from here," I said, indicating the pile of wood. I got out my Maglite.
There was a scratching noise coming from near where the Harpies had been trying to lift a section of wood. I approached cautiously. I could see a crevice in the wreakage, and there seemed to movement within. I leaned forward, peering, my torch held at arms length. I was acutely away of the giant grey figures all around me. Maybe they'd been try to get at whatever was in there when the sun had hit them.
"Hello?" I said. "Anybody there?"
I decided that I was going to have to stick my head in the hole. I scanned around - the wreakage was a latticework, with many cavities where a person could be trapped. I heard a whimper and swung my torch round.
It was a Harpy. It snarled at me and its spittle hit my face. A large claw grabbed out at me and caught hold of my hair before I could jerk away. I yelped.
I shone the torch in its face. It howled and then the howl died. Its reddened eyes glazed to grey and its expression froze. The claw still pulled. I shone the torch on that but the pulling stopped. I couldn't prise the fingers apart. I pulled the knife from my ankle holder and cut away at my hair until I was free.
Natla was pulling away, almost hysterical. She pushed me to one side and unleashed a fire ball at the wooden pile.
There was an immediate inferno. I could see the frozen Harpies twitching and trying to writhe as the flames touched their skin. As the muscles in their necks cooked, their heads tiled back and their jaws were forced open. The flames must have warmed the air in their lungs because suddenly they were letting out an involuntary hissing and wailing noise.
"Why?" I asked.
From deep in the trees, in the darkness of the undergrowth came a echoing set of howls. Natla stood there, the flames from the funeral pyre playing over her face.
"I thought ..." she said. A darkness began to settle over the jungle.
As we approached the helicoptor pad there was a smell of burning.
"Oh my," said Natla.
The helicoptor was transfixed with the burnt remains of wooden stakes. The Harpies had strung up some sort of contraption with vines and pulleys and levers. The helicoptor must have landed and sprung the trap.
The remains of the pilots were inside and outside. By my foot was a helmeted head. Its face had been bitten off.
"How could they have done this in broad daylight?" I said.
"So much planning," said Natla.
"Let's get down to the landing stage," I said. "There might be a boat. Natla?"
Natla was looking up at the sky, her hand shading her eyes.
"Natla? What is it?"
A look of horror had crept across her face. I turned to look up at the sun with her.
"The eclipse," whispered Natla.
A tiny sliver was etched out of the edge of the sun's disk. It was a day early.
4. FRUITLESS ...TTTAGGNNNATTACCCTTGAGACCACCTAA
Down at the sea's edge, the Harpies where waiting in hopeful rows, staring out to sea. There were Harpies of all sizes, including what were undoubtably children. They reminded me of the orderly queues wait to board the trains to Auschwitz.
On each side were the giant watchtowers fitted with arc lights and motion sensors that Natla had put up to hem them in. One of two of the lamps were broken, and there were shattered fragments of Harpy body strewn about on the ground, as if they'd frozen in mid air and then dropped like stones. It seemed that the sacrifice of those happy few had not been in vain, however, for the electricity was off all over the island, and the way to freedom was clear. Nobody on the mainland would be expecting an invasion in the middle of the day.
"Kill them all," said Natla.
"Why don't we just leave them to it?" I said.
"Can you imagine what would happen if they reached a town?"
"There'd be a couple of nights of excitement and them they'd all be hunted down," I said.
The Harpies were stirring in the gathering gloom. A Harpy child blinked sleep-rimmed eyes at me from the shelter of a parent's wing, and then yawned like a cat.
Natla flapped her hands as if trying to think of the right words to say something unpleasant. "This was supposed to improve my public image," she said.
"They say that there's no such thing as bad publicity," I said.
"Lara. Please." There were tears in her eyes.
"I'm off," I said. "If you've got any sense, you'll come with me."
I ran down to the landing stage without looking back. There was no boat. If I wanted to get off the island I'd either have to swim or fly.
As I launched myself into the air, I felt a blast of heat behind me. My own shadow was flickering in the flames and I could hear Harpy shrieks. I groaned and tears came to my eyes, but still I didn't look back.
I flapped out to sea, hoping for an updraft, my mind racing. I was filled with a mixture of emotions and I had the feeling that'd I missed something.
After five minutes I'd found an updraft that I could ride and gained height. The light was eiree and the surface of the sea was black. In the calm of being able to glide, my thoughts suddenly became clear.
Oh my God - I'd just left her. I should have knocked her out, or something, and forced her to come with me. I was too busy looking after my own skin. I'd just left her behind.
I groaned and folded my arms across my stomach, overcome with feelings of guilt. I began to fall, and I was tempted to allow myself to crash onto the surface of the sea. Natla had asked me to be her conscience. Just when she need me, I'd failed her. I was a complete bastard and there was no ducking it.
Finally I unfolded my wings and skimmed across the surface, face stung by salt spray and tears. I had to go back.
I wouldn't have been able to see the island behind me if it hadn't been for the flames and the flashes of fire. It looked like paradise surrounded by hell.
As I flapped laboriously against the off-shore breeze I was reminded of one of my youthful experiences in a sail boat. Leaving the shore with the wind behind me had been easy but then tacking back to safety in the rain had taken me hours, leaving me cold and frightened.
There was a smell drifting towards me that I recognised from the battlefield. Sometimes a small sensory reminder like a smell can plunge you right back there. I shuddered and hesitated, but then ploughed onwards.
Then I heard a sound. It was little more than a whisper at first be it got rapidly louder. It was the sound of leathery wings, flapping.
My heart leapt. Natla, I thought. She's followed me after all.
I could see a dark shape heading towards me. It seemed to be flying awkwardly, as if injured.
"Natla!" I called.
Then I saw a second shape, and then a third. Finally there was a crowd of them, attracted by the sound of my shout.
I did an Immelmann turn, swooping upwards and turning in mid-loop so that I was shooting away from them. There was a roar behind me, taken up by the rest of the Harpies.
I wondered if I could reason with them, but then I remembered that I wasn't in an episode of Star Trek. I pulled out my Uzi 9mm's and flew as fast as I could.
I was wondering if I'd have time to tape my Maglite to the end of one of my guns, when there when a blow on my right leg.
I screamed and tumbled, spiralling downwards and dropping one of my guns. There was a pain in my leg. I turned in midair in that classic HILO manoeuvre and fired blindly above me. There was a cry, and as I righted myself to glide a dark shape fell past me, claws clamped over its ruined face.
Another shape came in beside me, sliding sideways in the air, and crashing into me like a rugby player. I felt claws in my shoulder and twisted my Uzi around and fired a short burst. The claws were gone, but my shoulder was cut up.
I was winded and hardly able to flap my wings, but there was warm air rising from below me, so I managed to maintain my altitude. I was bleeding and exhausted, and I could see the flock of Harpies circling around me like the holding pattern above Heathrow.
It had turned into a game of chicken, with the Harpies snarling and growling at each other to get at me, and me whipping the Uzi from side to side, trying to save my bullets for the next close encounter.
Suddenly two of them flew at me from two sides. They were better fliers than me and I didn't have time to reach. I was crushed between them and I screamed, imagining that I could hear bones breaking. I felt arms around me and a bloody breath in my face. Another pain stabbed at me, and for a moment I couldn't locate it. Then I realise that something had taken a bite at my wing.
I sprayed around me with the Uzi, which was swiftly swotted out of my grasp. It was no use - I couldn't fight them. I folded my wings into me and dropped like a stone, straight for the sea.
The body learns certain things, and I have dived from some very high places before in my life. I found myself straightening my arms and my fingers, tucking my head between the crooks of my elbows, pointing my toes upwards. I was in a perfect dive and falling like a stone, but I couldn't breathe.
Birds do it, I thought. Kingfishers. Sea hawks.
I slammed into the water and went deep. For a second I thought I was going to lose it - the spiral of blackness was rushing in from the periphery of my vision and my limbs were tingling. I was still sinking, lungs bursting, when my body had another idea.
I found that I had unfurled the tips of my wings and that my vertical descent was gradually being converted into a swoop through the water. In the next moment I was gliding along horizontally and then I was climbing rapidly towards the black surface. Without the wings I might have drowned. I had no idea which was "up" in the blackness, but the wings knew.
As I broke surface I let out a cry - I couldn't help myself - and then, despite my painful ribs, drew in great lungfuls of air.
Immediately, the flock of Harpies began to mob me. The sea was whipped up into a frenzy of spray and waves as great shapes swooped down out of the sky, shreiking. A clawed talon ripped at my head, almost scalping my, and pushing me under the water. I flailed wildly with my fists, but made contact with nothing. Then I felt a tremendous pain in my right wing, and I was being pulled into the air. A Harpy had fixed its talons in me and was trying to lift me clear of the water, leathery wings thrashing, teeth bared. I was raked at from both sides by its companions, feet thrashing impotently at the surface of the sea.
Then my wing bones snapped and I fell back into the water. The wing would no longer fold, and I was splayed helplessly on the surface, as helpless as a bluebottle in a cup of tea.
This is it, I thought, wearily. I'd always known that I'd die in some unbelievably surreal fashion, but I'd never imagined this. I curled my arms over my head and waited for the final blows.
Then there was a thrumbing of a propeller in the water and bright light shone all round me.
A Harpy crashed into the water in front of my face. Its mouth froze open, and its flailing arms turned grey. There was a look of hatred and fear in its eyes as they hardened. The sea water gurgled into its throat and then it sank like a stone.
I felt a boat hook grasping my clothing, and heard the shouts of human voices, and then I fainted.
"Apparently ..." I started coughing.
"Water?" said Dr. Morfitt.
"Thanks. Apparently they managed to get us to sleep for a whole day. Natla must have been being psychic when she called that deity of theirs Morpheus."
"You need to rest. You've been through major surgery."
Dr. Morfitt had had to remove my wings. Natla had left instructions that I could choose to have them removed at any time, but it had become a medical necessity before I could make the decision.
"I can't believe that they went to all of that trouble just to escape from the island," I said, wiping the spilt water from my lips with a trembling hand.
"What do you mean?" said Dr. Morfitt, gently taking the glass from my fingers.
"They were out to get her. Natla."
"We didn't make them that intelligent," he said. "It was pure opportunism."
"But they put us to sleep."
"You'd been drinking. Indulging a new romance." Dr. Morfitt cleared his throat nervously. "Maybe you were just tired out."
I looked at him, and then shook my head. I was too tired to argue.
"Have the search parties found anything yet?
Dr. Morfitt winced. "So far they have found nothing alive on the island. Human or otherwise. It's a scorched wilderness."
"They'd have found her body."
"I've seen the videos that the landing crew took," said Dr. Morfitt. "There were more remains at the heart of Nagasaki."
I lay back to rest, closing my eyes. My whole body trembled.
It was a week later, and I was strong enough to sit up in bed. I'd eaten some food, and I could hold a book if I concentrated.
"Are you sure that you want to try and wade through this?" said Dr. Morfitt. He had a trolley with a personal computer and a pile of Biochemistry text books on it.
"I want to know exactly what was done to me," I said, firmly. "Natla thought I had a right to know."
Not the exact truth, but I was bored and I was trying to hold onto her in some way by examining her work. Her unsung genius. At least Oppenheimer had got the credit for the bomb.
I wouldn't have stood a chance, except that Natla had put together a presentation. There were PowerPoint slides. I imagined that her audience had been the scientists that worked for her.
I skipped the bit about the viral delivery system that had infected me. I know all about that. I wanted to know how she'd made a human grow wings.
I remembered at school how amazed that I'd been when I discovered how similar the embryos of different species are. If you put a chicken embryo next to a human embryo next to a turtle embryo they look practically identical. The only thing that differentiates them is their development. As they grow each cell has awakened with it the information that tells it what it should be. Lung cells grow next to lung cells. Eye cells next to eye cells. Wing cells next to wing cells. And so on. When the limb or organ is grown, the cells stop. In some animals, limbs can be regrown. Not in humans, not until Natla came along. She'd taken it a step further. Not just able to regrow lost limbs, she'd fathomed how to grow completely alien limbs.
I found a picture of a teratoma growth from a medical textbook. In this form of cancer, the development signals grow jumbled. There was a thing taken from a woman's womb, with one eye, a tooth, some hair, a finger. A monster. Only a master geneticist could sort play the developmental signals correctly. Natla was that master.
There was a list of genes that she'd activated or introduced, some of them not human, to start the growth. Each signal was finely tuned and localised to give the right skeletal and muscular structure, guided along its pathway by microinjections of hormones and other substances.
Gene names are not inherently interesting to look at, and there were hundreds. I sighed and let my head fall back on the pillow. I would never understand.
One of the names caught my eye - "fruitless". What a peculiar name, I thought. What did it mean? How could a gene be fruitless, and if it was, what was the point of it?
I typed "Fruitless" into a Biochemical search engine on the Net, not really hoping for enlightenment, but not prepared to give up. I was lead to a page called the "Interactive Fly".
"Male courtship behaviour is regulated by the fruitless gene," it said. "Drosophila courtship is an interaction wherein males hound females until copulation takes place."
I sat up, and began to read more closely.
"Sexual orientation, as well as courtship behaviour in Drosophila, is regulated by fruitless, the first gene in the sex-determination hierarchy functioning specifically in the central nervous system (CNS)," the entry continued. "The fruitless mutants show aberrant mating behaviour. Many mutant alleles result in male flies that court indiscriminately, which form male-male courtship chains in which each male is simultaneously both courting and being courted ..."
There was nothing about wings.
In another week, I was ready to leave. Guy the chauffeur was loading my things into the back of the car, when there was an excited shouting from around the back of the ranch.
"What's happening?" I asked.
"I don't know, Ms. Croft, but I can go and ask ..."
He stopped speaking and we both started listening intently. At first I wasn't sure, but then I could hear it.
"My Lord," said Guy. "Surely not?"
In the distance there was the distinct sound of flapping wings. A round of applause and some cheering was coming from the house. I grabbed up my shotgun and ran around the building.
Flying in from the setting sun was Natla. She'd obviously been resting up somewhere, for she was looking unscathed. She was smiling, and as fresh as a daisy. She alighted gently into a cloud of dust and Dr. Morfitt ran forward to shake her hand.
"It's so good to see you, Madam," he was saying. "We thought we'd lost you."
"Thank you, Morfitt," Natla was saying graciously. "It was a bit hairy there for a while, but I had some clearing up to do ..." Her voice tailed off as she caught sight of me.
"Good evening," I said.
"Lara!" she said, taking a few steps forward. "My God. I mean -Thank God. That you're all right."
"I'm just wonderful."
"I was so worried. Are you OK?"
"As I said, I'm wonderful. I have a couple of questions, and then I'll be off."
Natla took another step forward, holding out her hands. "You'll be off? I don't understand."
"Tell me about fruitless," I said, making sure she could see my shotgun.
Natla became pale. "What about it?"
"You changed me."
Natla laughed. "Well, of course. I made you fly. But ... your wings ..."
"There was nothing else we could do," said Dr.Morfitt.
"Fuck the flying," I said. "You abused me."
Natla opened her mouth and then shut it again. "Don't be silly," she said.
"You genetically altered me to make me fall in love with you."
"What are you talking about?" said Natla.
"You programmed me to fall in love with you."
Natla looked puzzled. She ran her fingers through her blonde hair. "Surely love comes from the heart," she said, softly. "It's more than just a collection of chemicals in the brain." Before I could react to this, she came forward and embraced me.
She kissed me on the cheek, and put her fingers on my neck. "I did it because I loved you," she whispered. I found that I still felt something at her touch, but it didn't excuse her.
"You asked me to judge you," I said. "Didn't you?"
Tears had sprung into Natla's eyes. Her face seemed to collapse into a mask of misery. "Yes," she said.
"Are you ready to be judged?" I asked, unable to keep the bitterness from my voice. I remembered a small dog that my aunt had owned. It had turned on me when I teased it too roughly. My aunt had loved it, but she had it put down, nonetheless.
"I'll do whatever you say," Natla said, wiping a tear away. "I love you. Nothing else - none of this - matters. I'm totally in your hands." She took my hands in hers. "Do whatever you think best."
Gently I placed my hands around her throat. The staff stirred angrily around us, but Natla told them to stay back, cursing fiercely.
"I love you," she said, looking into my eyes.
"Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds," I said.
I tightened my fingers around her neck. She didn't struggle.
The great picture at the beginning of the story is the work of Agnes Margrethe Heyer. It is an original work by her and she owns any copyright.
NOTICE: This story is a work of fiction. Lara Croft, her likeness, and the Tomb Raider games are all copyright of Core Design and EIDOS Interactive. There is no challenge to these copyrights intended by this story, as it is a non-sanctioned, unofficial work of my own.