The dead





1. Tuba Dei

I was sitting on the plinth of my memorial statue with the barrel of my shotgun shoved in my mouth, thinking about life.

"Surely you can't return these things?" I'd said to the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. "The countries concerned are dangerous enough already."

"I hardly think that the Chinese Government is going to need to invade Taiwan led by a fire-breathing dragon, do you?" the Permanent Under-Secretary had said, adjusting the cuffs of his shirt, and smiling his smoothest smile. "Besides the Dagger of Xian is of great cultural significance to them. Tourism is one of their biggest earners. You wouldn't want Chinese Communism to collapse through lack of US dollars, would you?"

I'd had to bite my tongue. "Surely you can't trust the Israelis with the Ark of the Covenant?"

"We trust them with the nuclear weapons that we secretly supplied the parts for," he'd replied, mildly. "Besides, it might help them sort out the Palestinian problem once and for all."

"O.K.," I said, pressing my knuckles into the palm of my hand. "Why take my father's collection of gold artifacts?"

"I'm told that most of it is covered by treasure trove legislation. You'll have your say in court, and you'll be compensated."

I snorted. "What about my T. Rex head, then?"

"Biological hazard?" hazarded the Permanent Under-Secretary. "I'm guessing, I'm afraid."

"So. To sum up - the Government is burgling me."

"I'm sorry," he said. "It's out of my hands. You still have one or two pieces."

"The broken head of an Olympean warrior and the broken remains of an Atlantean Scion."

"Sounds jolly interesting. Lara - surely at the end of the day these are all just things? It's not as if you need the money. Surely the main thing is that you still have your health."

I gave him a long, long look. "How exactly would you define health?" I said. Then I'd gotten up and left his office with another word.

Of course, it was all revenge.

The official account of my escape from the Tomb of Seth was jolly heroic. Apparently I'd just picked myself up and climbed my way out of there, to emerge blinking in the desert sunlight, ready for a whole new set of adventures. Now that my image had been trademarked, the company had that image to protect. I wandered around shops only to encounter plastic models of myself posing next to a motorcycle or holding a harpoon. The only good thing about the models and the computer games was that I was unrecognisable from real life. Small mercies. That Lara never grew old, never stopped being sharp. She never stopped making big money.

In reality, waking up in the Tomb of Seth had been distinctly unglamorous. I'd lost my backpack. I couldn't find a torch. I could hardly crawl. I'd lain there for an eternity, dust in my mouth and eyes, weeping for a painkiller. The thirst had grown and the pain had begun to fade. I was dying. I'd smiled when I'd realised that I was dying. So peaceful. But still I didn't die. The hours or the days had passed. I'd grown bored. I'd begun to dream of an ice-cold glass of lager served on a marble bar top in sweaty Alexandria. So I got out of there. Just. The newspapers had kept away from me. I'd given one or two jaundiced interviews that jarred with my clean-cut, upper-class, non-drinking, non-smoking, non-swearing, asexual image.

"Super," I thought, feeling the cold metal of the gun against my teeth. "I saved the world again. Lucky old world. Saved to continue to sell me."

Maybe, like Jim Morrison or Marilyn Monroe, it was time to ensure my iconic status.

I pushed the trigger of my shotgun and plastered the memorial statue to myself with my brains.

*****


I'm not sure if I heard Azrafil's trumpet or not. Maybe there was a sort of ringing in my ears, the aftermath of a sound that was still reverberating around the stones of the Croft Mausoleum, but then, logically my ears must have still been a dead woman's ears when the first blast blew.

My first reaction when I came to myself was to reach upwards. There was a cold stone surface a foot and a half above me, and stone walls to each side. It was lucky that I wasn't in an ordinary coffin, or else I'd never have been able to lever my legs into the position needed to shift that stone lid. When I pushed upwards I was amazed at how strong I felt. There were no stiffness in my muscles, and no tinges of pain from my many wounds.

It took me a while, but eventually the stone crashed to the floor in the darkness, and I stood up. I reached my hands around to the back of my head, where the shot should have exited. Nothing missing, but my hair - so glossy, so thick. I hadn't had hair like that since I was in my twenties.

My body felt - I don't quite know how to describe it. Full of juice springs to mind. I was feeling so very healthy, so very 'bouncy'. Just standing there in that new body with the heart beating, the feeling of the new skin, that strange whoosey feeling in my stomach and my breasts and my groin, I felt so very young.

I thought about how only minutes ago - it seemed like minutes - I'd blown my own brains out.

"You stupid woman," I said to myself. "How could you possibly have wanted to kill yourself?"

I was the only occupant of the Mausoleum. Grandfather had built it, but there were no occupants yet. Grandfather himself had been eaten by hippopotami in the Sudan. Grandmother was not longer part of the family after she ran off to have an abortive affair with Adolf Hitler. Their only child, my father, was still very much alive as far as I knew, and as for mother - she was about as welcome in the family crypt as a Big Mac at Glastonbury.

If I'd only but known it, it was a good job that the floor of the Mausoleum was built of solid rock. The first clue to what was going on outside was the voices. Even through the closed doors I began to hear hundreds of voice - a huge multitude. There was screaming and shouting. I could hear snatches of English and of other tongues. French? Latin? Surely not Latin? The big doors at the top of the Mausoleum steps began to shake and creak. I took a step backwards. I was dressed in my best clothes, the ones I'd been laid out in, but I had no guns. If Winston had been around he'd have made sure I was buried with my beloved Brownings strapped to my thighs. My tomb was surrounded by iron railings. I dislodged one of the palings with a large rock. A spear wasn't much use against a mob, but - let's just say it was psychological. As I tried to imagine what was going on outside, an idea was forming in my mind. Here I was, risen from the dead, miraculously restored to perfection. The only possibility that I could think of was the Judgement Day. What if the whole world had risen with me? They'd be out there packed tighter than sardines. If it was Judgement Day, no doubt I was going straight to Hell on a bus.

The doors continued to creak. "Well get on with it," I said, to nobody in particular. "I've always wanted to meet Satan."

"I think I'm going to meet him sooner than you," said a quiet voice behind me.

I spun around, spear at the ready. It was an angel - slightly frazzled looking - but an angel nonetheless.

"Don't you remember me?" said the angel.

I was staggered. It was Azrafil.

I had started stammering. So much for finishing school. "B-but that was all a dream," I said.

I was referring, of course, to my heroic exploits in Kosovo. For a while I'd been convinced that I'd discovered the tombs of the Byzantine emperors. I'd also been convinced that a large crowd of angels - a 'United Nations of the Angels' - had come and stopped the fighting on Mount Torbesi.

"I went through all this with Stella Oldfield," I was saying.

"Lara ..."

I was counting off on my fingers; I was avoiding looking at him. "There were too many wrong facts. The Hungarian crown has two altered panels, not three. It wasn't a female crown, it was a male crown. Constantine Monomachus never adhered to dualism ..." I suppose that I was hoping that a burst of rationality would make him disappear.

"Lara, shh," said Azrafil, putting a finger to my lips. "None of that matters and nobody cares."

His touch calmed me somewhat and I closed my eyes. "This is another dream now, right?"

"I'm afraid not. Something bad has happened."

"Bad?"

Azrafil winced. "I don't have much time, but - basically I'm on the run. The Gabriel Hounds are on my heels. And soon I'm to be reassigned. To a different angelic host."

He made me sit down with on a rock bench .

"There's this being - their name doesn't matter - who has found a way to sneak into the City of Angels," said Azrafil. The City of Angels was the main Christian afterlife community. "This being - this intruder - doesn't hold a conventional view of morality, and it seems to me that their sole motivation is anarchy. They've already tried to mold the world to their needs a couple of times, and this time I think they've managed to destroy it."

"Whoa! Slow down." My brain was beginning to work again. "I remember you," I said. "You're the angel in charge of the end of the world. You're in charge of that trumpet."

"The Trumpet of the Last Judgement," said Azrafil. "One blast and the whole Resurrection thing is set in motion like a big machine."

"I thought you had the Trumpet well guarded?"

"So did I."

"It seems that you've been a tad careless," I said.

"Indeed," said Azrafil.

"So. What's the deal? You want me to recover the Trumpet."

Azrafil laughed in an embarrassed way. "If only it was that simple," he said, fiddling with the tips of his wings. "The Trumpet is safe. It's Death that's missing."

"Death?"

"Yes."

I snorted. "Oh give me a break," I said. "What - 'Death' like in Bill and Ted? Big cloak, skinny fingers, scythe?"

"Not quite. Do you remember Azrael?"

Azrael had been one of the trio of angels who had spoken to me on Mount Torbesi.

"He was the Angel of Death. Nobody dies without him," said Azrafil. "Let me quote to you from the Koran."

"Do you have to?" I said. Generally I'm about as popular with Islam as I am with the Masons.

"Sura XXXIX, The Troops, Verse 68. And there shall be a blast on the trumpet and all who are in the Heavens and all who are in the Earth shall expire, save those whom God shall vouchsafe to live. The irony is that the one person to die - the one person who isn't needed any more - is the Angel of Death."

"Logical enough. So that howling mob out there - God has vouchsafed them to live?"

"What's going on out there has very little to do with God," said Azrafil.

At that moment a sound became audible above the noise of the mob. It was the noise that a flight of geese make as they pass overhead. Azrafil was white and dressed in white, but he turned a paler shade of white.

"The Gabriel Hounds," he said. "Azdemoneus has nearly found me."

"So what am I supposed to do to help you," I said, picking up on some of his fear. "Start shooting them all until I've cleared some space?"

Azrafil pulled himself together. "I have two gifts for you which might help you on your quest."

"O.K."

"Firstly - this." He produced what looked like a large fishing net made of gold. "This net is used by fishers of men. To gather men up."

"I don't understand."

"Everyone who was ever alive is alive. Moses. Beowulf. Hildegarde of Bingen. You can have whoever you like to help you."

I took the net dubiously. "Hildegarde of Bingen?"

"Just think of them as you swing out the net, and they will be yours."

He took my hand and we floated upwards. As we rose through the roof of the Mausoleum I got my first scent and sight of the brave new world that Azrafil's trumpet had wrought. The ground was black with people, stretching to the horizon. In the distance I could see the Croft Mansion. It appeared to have been converted to offices. There was a big sign on the front reading 'Coca Cola Political Management Services UK.' There were figures falling out of the windows. Obviously not fans of the great taste of Coke. Hovering high above them I could see what looked like another angel. Below us was the howling mob, all ages, all races. They were fighting and biting and kicking and trampling. It was unnerving.

"Can any of them die?" I asked.

"No," said Azrafil. "All wounds will heal. But they can feel pain. They can thirst and starve."

I coudn't think of anything to say to that.

"Now - here is your second gift. Every fisherman needs a boat."

The boat was great. It was a bit like a Viking long boat and it was hanging in mid air. As we alighted on the wooden deck, the geese were circling around us.

"Just think of a place and you'll be there," said Azrafil. He glanced at the Gabriel Hounds. "I think it's time for me to go."

I grasped his hand, hard. "If I sort this out, will you be reinstated?"

However his time was up. At that moment there was a shimmering, and Azdemoneus - the third member of the Mount Torbesi group - appeared. His eyes were red and his wings were wreathed in burning sulphur.

"Good morning, Lara," he said. "How are you?"

With one gesture he directed a sheet of fire at Azrafil, who burst into flames.

"In answer to your question," said Azdemoneus, "Azrafil is ours now. Forever. Satan isn't very pleased with this 'no death' thing. We'll be having our fun with Azrafil. But I suppose a resumption of normal service might persuade us to lay off him a bit."

You can't really bargain with the Devil but I thought I'd have a try. "But the Trumpet thing - it was a mistake. This is so unfair."

Azdemoneus laughed. "Go read your Bible."

"What about your 'United Nations of the Angels?'"

"It's Judgement Day - haven't you heard? Now the bad really get it in the neck. Speaking of which - we've got a lovely set of red hot pokers downstairs just itching to get at your cute little ass. If you get ever bored up here again. Nice self-inflicted head shot, by the way. How we laughed."

"Fuck you," I said.

A swarm of fiery mosquitoes appeared and began to feast on the unfortunate Azrafil's burning eyes. Then the both of them disappeared, leaving me alone on my boat, net in hand.

The Gabriel Hounds flew off.

The wind ruffled my hair.

"Take me up," I said to the boat. "Take me up until I can't hear the screaming any more."

2. Fisher of men

For long time I sunbathed in the nude. I couldn't get over myself.

As far as I could see, I had no immediate incentive to do anything at all. If I reinstated death, and died, then all I had to look forward to was a rough party in Hell. OK - so I'd need some food and things, and company would be nice, but even then I was sure than I could cope with hanging out in a boat in the clouds for a very long time, especially feeling as groovy as I did.

"Why is it my job, anyway? I didn't blow the bloody trumpet."

I could pick up some debris and build a thing to catch rainwater. I could go fishing over the ocean. I could swoop over tropical islands and pick fruit from the trees without ever landing. If I got too hot, I'd go somewhere cold. If I got too dry, I could go to Manchester. I wondered if the ship would take me back to Mars if I asked it.

I had it made, as far as I could tell, and with no effort on my part. I chuckled. Clever old me.

However, I began to think about it. Leaving Azrafil to one side for the moment, everybody was alive. Did that mean that somewhere down there everybody I knew or had once known was struggling for their lives in some ghastly rugby scrum?

I wasn't sure that I felt very comfortable with that. I looked at the boat. It was big, but not that big. How many people could I fit on it? And who would I save and who would I leave? I could see that it was going to start bugging me.

Then there was a pride thing. Azrafil could have chosen anybody in the world, anybody from any time period. He'd chosen me. He must have thought I have pretty hot. I couldn't help it, but it made me brim with self-gratification. Lara Croft - doing what she did best, saving the world. I was good. I was very good. It was nice to be appreciated. And maybe I had an image to live up to.

The old me - the one who had blown her brains out - would no doubt have crawled into bed and stayed there for eternity. But I was feeling so very funky. I wanted to give life an old-fashioned kicking, like I always used to. Use it or lose it, that's what they say.

"Let's go fishing," I said, picking up the net. My first choice was a no-brainer. "Give me Winston Jeeves." Every Don Quixote needs a Sancho Panza.

I didn't recognise the figure who was deposited in the net at my feet. It was naked, covered in filth, and gibbering.

"Take us to the centre of Lake Balaton," I told the boat. There was no feeling of movement. One minute we weren't there and the next we were.

He didn't know me at first - it appeared that he didn't even know himself. Or how to speak English. Or what planet we were on. He was about twenty years old. I helped him over the side of the boat into the water and washed him. Then I shared my clothes with him and flew us somewhere warm.

"Lara?" he said, eventually. His voice was much deeper.

"God, I've missed you," I said. I kissed him and we started to cry.

I loved him. What can I say? And eventually, because we were only human and because we were glad to be alive and not wallowing in some insane cesspit, we made love. I�ve got nothing else to say on the matter.

*****




Winston had all his hair, as well as a rather grand moustache. He seemed about twice as tall as his old self.

"If it's all right with you," he said, "I'd rather remain as your manservant."

"Shagging the staff?" I said. "What would the neighbours say?"

"Lord Henry Douglas managed to pursue a 30-year relationship with his butler, and nobody minded much. It's not as if Lord Douglas presented his boyfriend to society, and he'd done his duty with regard to heirs. Besides, I suspect that the neighbours have other things on their mind, Miss."

"Don't you think that calling me 'Miss' or 'Madam' seems a bit S and M?"

"If it pleases Madam to look at it that way."

"But we're still going to make love, I take it?"

"I'm pleased to service Madam in whatever way she chooses," said Winston, with a straight face.

I burst out laughing and kissed him. Winston blushed. "'Servicing Madam' indeed," I said. "What a naughty boy."

"Yes Miss."

"You shall be my body servant. I shall instruct you."

"Yes Miss."

We were hungry and so we killed an over-curious dolphin by smacking it over the head with a piece of wood. Then we found an uninhabited tropical islet. Winston lit a fire by twirling some sticks, and used a sharp piece of glass as a knife. The dolphin was delicious when lightly grilled and eaten with tropical citrus fruits.

"The Admirable Winston," I said, after the meal. "Give us a kiss."

"Very good Madam."

Eventually we had to decide whom else to go collect with the golden net. Winston was reluctant to discuss our predicament at first, but I gave him a fairly vicious Chinese burn.

"I'm at a loss as to the reason why the Divine Being, whoever He or She may be, doesn't just correct this lamentable situation," said Winston.

"Maybe it's one of those free will things," I said. "Or some sort of test, like Lot's wife."

"Indeed."

"God's a right joker, isn't he?"

"I haven't really formed an opinion, Miss."

"So. Who do we go and get?"

It was difficult to choose when the problem facing us was so unclear. Were we supposed to reinstate death? Is so, was Azrael the only acceptable Death? What about the various gods of death, like Coatlicue, Osiris or Kali? Were they all gone as well?

"Maybe I should try and bring Kali here," I suggested.

Winston frowned slightly. "Do we really want a goddess of death in the boat?" he said. "Besides, didn't Madam once have a bit of a punch up in India with the representatives of Kali?"

It was a good point. It was difficult not to think of a deity I hadn't offended in some way or another.

"It's not all about me, though, is it?"

"Of course not, Madam. However, are we convinced that tracking down a purveyor of death is the best plan? Maybe we need to seek advice rather than an immediate solution."

And so I brought back Jean-Ives Le Spartacan, Professor of Archaeology.

*****




"Merde," said Jean-Ives after we'd scraped the excess excrement from his face. He was as thin and young as Winston, and with a sexy French accent.

"Steady, old man," said Winston, putting a hand on Jean-Ives' shoulder to stop him fainting again.

"Vous etes Anglais?" said Jean-Ives. He began to laugh in a dazed fashion. "C'est vrai - 'God is an Englishman.'"

"Jean-Ives," I said. "C'est moi. Lara. Lara Croft. Et Winston."

"Lara? Mais - vous etes morte.

I spread my hands. "Je suis tres bien in actuellement."

"Votre Francais - terrible."

"So's mine I'm afraid. Could we stick to English?" said Winston.

"C'est le vieux rosbif d'Angleterre," said Jean-Ives under his breath.

"Boys, boys," I said. "I want us to all be pals."

Jean-Ives smiled. "'Pals' it is," he said.

"Amies," said Winston, holding out a hand.

Jean-Ives glanced at him and then at me.

"Go on," I said, "Shake his hand, and no remarks about le malaise Anglais."

"He is not ...?"

"No he bloody well isn't."

They shook hands.

Jean-Ives Le Spartacan was an old friend. His most famous piece of work had been for the De Gaulle government when he illustrated that Algeria had been a Celtic settlement in Roman times, and that all the modern day Algerians were invaders from the African subcontinent. Altough the principles of La Republic hadn't allowed the government to 'ethnically cleanse' Algeria, it provided a justification for limiting the number of Algerian immigrants in Paris. When Le Pen had started to quote Jean-Ives' findings, Jean-Ives had to dissociate himself from his own work.

He'd moved to Alexandria, where he'd helped me with the Set emergency that my own greed had created. Unfortunately, the Head of Archaeology in Alexandria was also named, by a strange coincidence, Jean-Ives Le Spartacan. There had been an argument between the two of them whilst I was pottering around in the various Pyramids. A Le Monde reporter had tempted the two men into a public slanging match, with both shouting "Mais non! Je suis Le Spartacan!" and my Jean-Ives had a heart attack - a lifetime of pan chocolate and cassis finally caught up with him. He'd finally succumbed on hearing the news of my loss in the Temple of Horus. As for me - it took me months to find out he was dead. It hadn't improved my mood.

I commanded the ship - I'd named it the Grace de Dieu - to sail to the Galapagos, but the place was full of tourists and sailors who were busy eating the giant tortoises. Ironic to think that much despised civilisation was the only thing that had kept them from becoming extinct. So we went back to the uninhabited tropical isle that we'd been to before, and we decided to make it our home base, naming it the Isle of Fools.

"It's an interesting situation, n'est pas?" said Jean-Ives, eating a coconut. "I do not see how we 'ave the power to disengage the apocalypse."

"We did it in Egypt," I said.

"That event seems like a mere divertissement compared to the present one."

"Madam seems to have been given a fair amount of power," said Winston, smoothing his moustache with a thoughtful finger.

"C'est vrai, mon brave. But although I agree with you that to summon a god of death may prove foolhardy, maybe we need to discover some sort of helpful god or goddess."

"It seems to me that this is a very Biblical thing," I said. "Azrafil and the others are all Christian."

"Or Islamic or Judaic," said Jean-Ives.

"Maybe we need to consult more angels."

"It is possible."

"Maybe we should call on good old St. George, Miss," suggested Winston.

I remembered the St. Georges in Belgrade. "I'd rather pick someone else," I said.

"Maybe instead of summoning them," said Jean-Ives, "we should take the Grace de Dieu to where one of them is. Maybe an archangel. My knowledge of L'Apocalyse is ... how you say - un peu hazy? Do not specific archangels carry out specific tasks?"

"He's got a point, Madam," said Winston.

"We need a copy of the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud," I said.

"What about the British Museum Library?"

Jean-Ives snorted. "Why not le Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris? It has many more books."

"Look lads, it would be easier to pop down the local branch of Blackstones," I said, "but I have a more interesting idea. Let's take a trip to Vatican City."

*****




The Vatican was granted independent status in 1929 by Mussolini, and from within his lavish court the Pope reigns over approximately five hundred million Catholics. I didn't realise it as we approached the burning city through the clouds of smoke, but the Vatican is the only model left on earth of the City of the Angels. It is the only really Byzantine court still in existence, with the difference that the Pope doesn�t blind people who annoy him. The bureaucracy of cardinals and bishops and canons and the world wide web of the Sees of the Catholic Church mirror the logothetes and strategos and protovestiarii who used to help govern the Themes of Byzantium. Now, as I tell this story, the irony of us visiting the Vatican prior to visiting the City of the Angels is hard for me to avoid.

The Grace de Dieu approached from the south over the Via di Porta Angelica - we could see that the Basilica in the Piazza Santa Pietro was in flames. Fire and stone chippings were falling like a Pompeian rain onto the packed herds of Romans below.

"Sacre Blue," said Jean-Ives. He was as ashen as an ancient marble. I found myself involuntarily making the sign of the cross, a comforting leftover from my childhood.

"You have thought that His Holiness would have received some sort of special treatment," observed Winston.

"Do we know where we are going?" I said. "I've visited the Vatican but I've never overflown it."

"Le Libraire Apostolique - he is situated by the Belvedere and the Pigna Courtyards," said Jean-Ives, pronouncing the last word with difficulty.

"That's the Belvedere below ..." I said, but was cut short by what I saw.

The Belvedere, a long courtyard with the Borgia Apartments brooding at one end, was filled with naked men. They were shouting and beating at each other with sticks and crosiers and the remains of weapons. Some of them wore the remains of apostolic robes and one or two had a battered Pope's crown on their bony heads. There were cries in various tongues - Latin, German, French, Italian, in dialects ranging from the ancient to the nearly modern.

"How many Popes have there been?" I whispered to Winston.

"Over two hundred and fifty, I believe, Miss."

"Well unless my eyes deceive me a large proportion of them have risen from the grave and are in the process of having a ruck."

"So it would seem, Miss."

"Strange behaviour for saints."

"If you say so, Madam. Maybe, like many heirs, the Heirs to the Apostles cannot agree on their inheritance."

Although a few Popes are buried at Avignon, but at least 35 of them are buried in St. Peter's and in the Vatican Grottos. The Medicis and the Borgias are buried in churches nearby in Rome, whilst many others have been moved from the old Lateran basilica and the Roman catacombs into the Vatican Museums. Something - maybe the Borgia Apartments - had caused them to congregate.

"I thought on Judgement Day that all war and argument would cease?" I said.

"So we've been lead to believe, Madam."

"Hmm," I said. I was feeling mildly shocked. "Maybe we'd better set down on the Library roof. At least that isn�t on fire."

"Very good, Madam." I gave him a kiss, and caught the flash of Jean-Ives' glance out of the corner of my eye.

3. Bad penny

There didn't seem much point in taking Jean-Ives or Winston with me, despite the fact that they were both now fit young men. I had the combat experience and I wasn't anxious to find out if the Net would bring a person back twice.

We moored the Grace de Dieu at the Tower of Winds. I slung a rope over the side and clambered down.

"But Madam," said Winston, "surely you shouldn't go alone?"

"I expect that boat to be in one piece when I get back."

"I shall have a look around out here whilst you are inside," said Jean-Ives.

"If you're not here when I get back I'm not coming to find you."

"Pas de probleme."

"Winston - I expect you to try and minimise his ridiculous Gallic machismo."

Jean-Ives let out one of those untranslatable French noises of outrage.

"Very good, Madam," said Winston, in a very English accent.

*****




Obviously I wasn't visiting the Vatican Library simply for a Bible. I wanted to get into the secret areas, partly because I'd always wanted to, and partly because I had one of my hunches that it might prove useful. My track record of finding hidden treasure despite having no plan (and using no logic) is second to none. Maybe I'm clairvoyant.

I sneaked in through a skylight, my ears as sharp as an Alsatian's. With a bit of luck there wouldn't have been too many people buried beneath the Library, I thought. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I could hear a clanking and a screaming from the upper corridor, and I crept out on all fours to look over the balcony. Wood smoke tainted with a smell of roast pork made my eyes water.

In between the reading tables and overlooked by various Catholic saints was a cohort of Roman legionaries. They had obviously been buried with their armour, since they were dressed in lumps of rust connected by scraggy bits of material and leather. They carried swords that looked as if they would fall apart if they were used. The man in charge - maybe a decurion - had his helmet welded to his head by brown and green knobs of iron and copper. They had made a fire out of chairs and were roasting what looked like a still-living librarian.

Normally I'd have dismissed them out of hand but nonetheless they were all fit young men, and I was weaponless. Stealth was required.

I found a leaflet in English with a room plan. Which was nice. The so-called 'Secret Archives' were available to view in a not very secret exhibition. I wasn't sure whether it was worth investigating or more - my sixth sense said not. Somewhere there must be an archive that was still secret. If this library was like any other library, then it would either be in the attic or the cellar. I'd come in through the attic, so now I had to go down to the cellar. Where there was lots of old earth, filled with the bones of past generations.

Bollocks, I thought.

However, at the bottom of the staircase, I had my first lucky break. Lying in a pile was the blue and orange uniform of a Vatican Swiss Guard. Its owner was nowhere to be seen - maybe he'd been the first course for the Romans. This was good news. Much as I enjoy running around with my tits and arse hanging out, some proper clothes were just the ticket. Even better than the outfit was an antique looking pike. It may have been only ceremonial but the head was made of sharpened steel and the haft of strong pliable wood. As well the pike, in the pocket of the pantaloons I found a Swiss Army knife. I was armed at last, and if I found a horse with a stone in its hoof, I'd be sorted. I tucked my ponytail into the Swiss Guard beret and continued with my investigations.

The Vatican Library generally looked as if it had been used as part of the Pamplona bull run. That meant there were no locked doors. The basement was creepy. There was no electric light, and the floor was uneven and potholed, with tilted floor boards and tilted stone tiles, as if there had been an eruption of bodies from underneath. The only advantage was that there was plenty of cover.

It was at the moment that I began to wonder what would happen if I tried to kill anybody. With zombies, you can chop them to pieces - lop their head off, or something - whilst they shamble about like morons. With vampires, which are all together nimbler on their feet, you'd stake them or you'd throw them into the sunlight. But what of this brand of undead? They'd risen whole and strong. Would every wound heal? Would the dismembered 're-member'?

I could hear the murmur of voices from a nearby room, and I approached cautiously.

There appeared to be something like a Roman group therapy session going on. The people were dressed in shabby tunics, and they had cloth fishes sewn to their breasts. One man, white bearded and patriarchal, with his hands raised as if in prayer, was talking quietly to them.

"As I wrote to you before," he said, in accented Latin, "those whose mouth is full of bitterness and cursing are very quick to shed blood. There is no fear of God in their eyes, they have never known peace and their road is filled with misery and destruction."

I knew what he meant.

"However, do not be afraid. The righteous dead will die no more," he continued. "Only the sinner is corruptible."

I hoped that he was wrong. A world in which only Christians were indestructible didn't sound too pleasant to me.

I slunk away. I was just wondering if the wooden floor that I was tiptoeing over was safe when it crumbled beneath my feet and I fell into the darkness.

*****




So much for my new young body. I bet my old crumbling body would have had the experience to grab onto something.

I was choked by a tremendous smell of sewage from the moment that I fell, and then, perhaps fortunately, I had the breath knocked out of me.

Whatever I had landed on was slick, warm and covered with giant knobbly bits. It moved under my touch. There was a tremendous moaning from just under my hands and feet. The moan spread out in concentric ripples until the whole space for hundreds of yards around me was filled with cries and groans and fragments of human speech.

I strained to see by the light coming down from the jagged hole above me, but I could see nothing. It was so dark that tiny black and white squares were dancing in my vision. I tried to stand, but the surface was so slippery and uneven that I fell heavily.

Then I could feel fingers reaching for me. They were rather purposeless at first, like a blind person mapping out a face, but then they became more grasping. Painful. It was like crowd surfing in a gas chamber.

I cried out in alarm in spite of myself. Something about it reminded me of that altar on Madunai Island.

Fortunately I still had my pike and my Swiss army knife. The knife wasn't that sharp, and the hinged blade kept threatening to chop my fingers off instead of those of my attackers, but it was adequate.

By using the pike as a crutch and by digging the point into any convenient piece of flesh or bone that presented itself, I began to inch along in the darkness. The major problem, apart from the grabbing arms, was that I had no shoes and I kept accidentally getting my toes stuck in gaping mouths. Do that once too often and something would get bitten off, I thought. Every now and again the tip of the pike would become entangled in some hair, and I'd have to wrench it free. It was like the uprooting of the fabulous mandrake - there would be a ripping, tearing sound followed by a scream, the sort of scream that could make the weak hearted mad.

After a time, I began to tire. It was harder work than wading through deep snow, and despite the heat and the steam and the stench rising all around me in the darkness, I was becoming icy cold. My sweat burned my skin like icicles, and my limbs were shaken by tremors that were more like twitches or spasms than just mere shivering.

I knew that I had to keep moving - I had to stay awake - or I would fall into the morass and be lost. I've struggled through an Arctic blizzard. I've hacked my way through the jungle of the Dorien Gap in the depths of the night. I've been forty fathoms beneath the sea with no air, no light and no idea of which way to go. But that time spent struggling through the modern equivalent of the Cloaca Maxima over the living bodies of the dead is the most lost that I've ever felt.

There was no rest. If I tried to stop, and rest on my pike, then the arms would begin to reach for me.

"Oh for God's sake, fuck off and leave me alone," I found myself shouting.

"Help us," came the replies, in many different dialects.

"If I get out of here, I'll help you all," I'd say. I had to justify my iron will to survive - I needed a form of logic to keep my head above water.

I was beginning to wish that I had crampons instead of bare feet. My toes were encrusted with faeces and vomit, and my slowing reflexes made it hard to keep a footing. The air, which was already bad, was beginning to stick in my throat. I was becoming more and more breathless and my throat was constricting. If I tried to cough to clear it, the coughing would turn into retching, and the time I spent stationary gave more time for my legs to be grabbed. They were already bruised and bleeding, and the muscles had that 'marathon feel' - stiffened and full of anaerobic acids. Climbing Everest without oxygen was a doddle compared to this.

Now I slipping down to the thigh if I missed my footing, my legs crushed between the packed bodies of the dead. I had to slash around me with the encrusted Swiss Army knife, but I couldn't avoiding the biting and the scratching as I struggled to regain my perch.

I was feeling faint. I found myself wondered if my tetanus jabs had been up to date when I died.

Then I began to pray. I had a vision of Father Dunstan in my mind. He was smiling gently, his fingers pressed together as we recited the Lord's Prayer together.

"Our Father," I whispered through cracked lips. "Who art in heaven ... who art in heaven. Are you? In heaven? Where are you, Lord?"

The howling all around me began to sound like harmony, like one of those choirs that sometimes gets shown on Songs of Praise.

"This isn't right, Father," I said to Father Dunstan. "This isn't the way that you described it to me. Where is that Good Shepherd? Where is that kindly Redeemer? The sheep are wandering over the hills being picked apart by wolves. Where is that sheep fold we were promised?"

Father Dunstan didn't say anything, but he smiled and nodded, as if he was hearing my First Confession.

I was about to give up - it was so tempting to lie down. There was a thrumming in my ears like the beat of giant wings, and a sweaty, disgusting wind was trying to over-balance me, blowing my hair into my face. I began to see flickers of light dancing on the walls of the sewer, and my night vision became acute enough to see all of the despairing faces beneath my feet.

"If you faint, you won't die," I thought. "You'll just wake up in hell."

My eyes rolled up in my head and my legs folded beneath me.

*****




When I regained consciousness, I was warm and dry. There was a cool cloth over my eyes - I could just see the sunlight through cracks in the weave - and I was naked, but wrapped in a fine blanket of some kind. I could smell sweet fresh air. I didn't move, but I allowed a faint smile to play on my lips. What a horrible dream I'd been having.

"I do believe our sleeping beauty is awake," said a female voice.

"We're watching you, Madam," said Winston's voice. "One false move..."

"Oh, for pity's sake, Winston. Take a chill pill," said the woman, with a California drawl. "I just followed her down there and saved her, didn't I? Besides - one false move and what, dude? You'll make me drink warm beer?"

I whipped the cloth from my eyes, and squinted up at her. For a moment I was dazzled by the sky and by her huge mop of glowing blonde hair, but I'd seen enough.

"Natla!" I said.

"Howdy pardner," said Natla, with a ferociously white smile. "How's it going?"

All of my memories, including the sexual designs that Natla had had on me in the past, came flooding back. I blushed and then I realised that I was practically naked.

"Where are my clothes?"

"Babes - I had to fireball them. They were enouugh to make a grown girl hurl."

"I could have washed them!" I said, wrapping the sheet very tightly about myself. "You were obviously taking advantage." It was as if she'd never been away.

"It wasn't just that they were covered in crapola," said Natla, in a reasonable voice. "Orange and blue stripes aren't really you."

"Who the fuck asked your opinion? You're supposed to be dead."

"I guess." Natla tried not to look hurt, but she brightened again after a millisecond of introspection. "You'll be glad to know, however, that your bod's looking even more buff than I remember. Reincarnation's obviously the new colonic irrigation."

Winston and Jean-Ives exchanged glances.

"Fucking lesbians," I said. "Why don't you all bog off back to New Mexico?"

"Snappish," said Natla. With a rustling of her leathery wings she stretched and gave a lioness yawn, her orthodontically perfect canines gleaming in the sunlight. Her mouth resembled a carnivorous red rose.

Winston cleared his throat. He was wearing a tropical suit with a tie, whilst Jean-Ives had found some jeans and a Fioricci T-shirt. "You'll be relieved to know, Miss, that whilst you were away we have been ... I'm not sure what the correct word is."

"Le pillage," said Jean-Ives.

"Shopping," said Winston. "And we have some clothing for you."

They'd gotten me my favourite outfit - leotard, shorts, boots and Marks and Spencers knickers.

"The one thing that they have in Rome is le couture. I also have des Gitanes Kingsize et du vin."

"We even managed to find some Heinz baked beans and a packet of Twinings English Breakfast Tea, Madam."

"Fantastic work, chaps," I said. "I'm getting changed now, and you are all going to turn your backs."

*****




Natla, for all her faults, did have a brain in her head.

We were back on the Isle of Fools (or L'Isle Des Folles, and Jean-Ives had started calling it). Winston was trying to adapt one of his Indian recipes by baking chiabatta chapatis on open coals, and Natla was poncing about in the sea trying to catch fish like a heron. She'd hover noisily above the lagoon and then execute a perfect dive, wings folded against her back. She didn't catch a thing. Eventually she gave up and set about improving her already perfect tan, flaunting her perfect new Atlantean body.

Jean-Ives and I had set about getting pissed on Chianti and smoking lots of fags.

"You know what?" said Natla, pacing up to us stark naked. Jean-Ives rolled onto his stomach.

"Put some clothes on," I said.

"You're so English," protested Natla, but she draped a miniscule towel around herself. "I came to tell you guys something I've noticed, but if you're going to be snippy."

"What?"

"It's the sun. I was thinking maybe I'd have better luck fishing at sunset, but the sun is always stuck at high noon. It's a doozy."

We all looked up into the sky.

"I haven't noticed any sign of night since we were brought back," said Natla, "and wherever we go on the planet, it's always midday."

Jean-Ives pulled a Gallic face and then laughed. "C'est vrai," he said.

"I say," said Winston. "I thought I was getting a bit lobster coloured."

"It's the bit about wherever we go on the planet that gets me," said Natla. "Even if the earth had stopped going around the sun for some reason, it'd still be night somewhere. It can't be daytime in Rome and in the Caribbean simultaneously."

I offered her a glass of wine.

"Quite frankly it's got me hornswaggled."

I nearly choked. "Hornswaggled?"

"Did I get the dialect wrong again?"

"You tell us," I said. "You're the ersatz California girl."

"I never should have tried reading that damn Harry Potter book."

"No, you shouldn't," I said.

"Maybe time has stopped, Miss," suggested Winston.

"I did wonder about that," said Natla, "but then surely our senses wouldn't be working. Nerve impulses need time to travel."

"How you say - a watched clock never boils," said Jean-Ives.

"Uh huh," said Natla, expressionlessly.

We settled down to a meal of curried turtle eggs and chiabatta chapatis.

"Oh, by the way," said Natla, dabbing her lips, "you still haven't looked at this." She held up a battered bronze tube.

"What's that?"

"You had it tucked into your clothing when I found you."

"No I didn't," I said.

"Yes you did."

"No. I didn't."

"Suit yourself, babes. I'll just chuck it in the sea then."

"Really, ladies," said Winston.

"Donnez le moi," said Jean-Ives, holding out his hand.

Inside the bronze tube was a parchment.

"Are you sure you didn't pick this up in the Vatican Library, Miss?"

"I certainly don't remember picking it up."

"Could someone 'ave given it to you? Dans l'eguote?"

I gave Natla a hard stare. "You palmed this thing off on me, didn't you?"

Natla snorted. "As if," she said, and went to splash around in the rock pools, as carefree as Cleopatra in the bath of asses' milk.

I picked up the cigarettes and the wine and went off in the opposite direction to sit in the Grace de Dieu. They just didn't know Natla as well as I did. There was always some trick, some double bluff, to get people to do what she wanted. I wasn't falling for that one again.

I blew smoke rings for a bit, and finished the bottle. Then I pulled some canvas over me and went to sleep.

*****




I was woken by a whiskery kiss. I made him rig the sail over our trysting place, explaining that I didn't want Natla seeing us. He was wise enough and gentleman enough not to question me about it. Although he was prepared to be jealous of any attentions paid to me by Jean-Ives, he realised that my shyness of Natla was not worth trying to alter.

"How did she find us?" I said to him afterwards. "The whole world is in a turmoil, and yet she turns up unerringly in Rome, just in time to rescue me."

"Ms. Natla is a resourceful person, Miss," said Winston, with his arms around me.

"She's stalking me again."

"Maybe she simply wishes to help, Madam. Maybe she's grateful for a new lease of life."

"Continue to keep an eye on her."

"As Madam wishes."

We rejoined the others.

"So what was in the tube?" I asked.

"Later, peut-etre," said Jean-Ives, waving his cigarette. "Mademoiselle Jacqueline has been telling me something quite incroyable which she observed on the way to Rome."

"She's not really called Jacqueline. She just adopted that name in the 60's and 70's."

"But it sounds so continental the way he says it," said Natla. "Zjyackaleena."

"You're from the wrong continent," I said.

Natla gave a wry smile.

"She says that she has seen people being judged," interrupted Jean-Ives.

That shut me up.

"As in - the Last Judgement?" said Winston. "The sheep and the goats, God's left hand and right hand - that sort of thing?"

Jean-Ives shrugged.

"And who was doing the judging?" I said.

"I'm no expert," said Natla, "but it didn't look like any Judeo-Christian god to me. And I generally know a deity when I see one."

"So who was it?"

Jean-Ives started laughing. "This is the unbelievable bit."

"Well it looked to me like a couple of those angel dudes plus a bunch of guys dressed up like Nazis."

Winston and I started laughing.

"Are you sure you weren't on the set of some poor quality Hollywood movie, Madam?" he said.

"Or maybe she's just forgotten to take her medication," I said.

Natla smiled cheerfully. "You guys!" she said. "Tell you what - why don't I just show you all?"

4. A slight lapse in judgement

We saw the geese first, the Gabriel Hounds, flying towards us and away from us in great flocks. Then we saw a glowing place in the distance - we were somewhere over the volcanic chain that includes Etna and Vesuvius - and the glow was a mixture of red and white gold.

I set the Grace de Dieu down in a grove of cypress trees on the top of a blessedly uninhabited hill. The dead seemed to have been cleared away from these parts. We crept up to the edge and looked down on the valley of judgement, exactly as Natla had described it to us.

The Archangel Gabriel was seated on a giant throne, and to each side of him was a queue of naked people. Gabriel was the one that had sent things after me in Budapest and Belgrade. On his right hand was a huge white glowing staircase, flanked by statues, reaching up into the sky. On his left hand was a bottomless lava pit, filled with flames, and flanked by Azdemoneus and his gang.

So far, so good, but then we saw the things that made us realise that the world had gone quite mad. A train drew up on a station guarded by men in uniform. The uniforms were many and various - Protestant Nazis, Christian Romans, Boer War-period British soldiers in red jackets and white pith helmets, White Russians, South African policemen, Spanish conquistadors, French crusaders, slave ship captains and U.S. cavalrymen, missionaries from Australia - God-fearing genocidal nations of every era were represented. Out of the train spilled men women and children. Their possessions and clothing were piled up by the track, and they were segregated. Bureaucrats dressed in freshly pressed white lab coats passed down the lines, asking questions, taking measurements, consulting large leather-bound books. Some of the examinees were given robes and palms and harps, and lead to the queue before the stairway to the stars. They were comparatively few in number. The rest were handed symbols to hang about their necks - yellow stars, black stars, red stars, purple stars, pink triangles, green crescents, bleeding foetuses, atomic diagrams and pieces of DNA. They joined the queue waiting to pass by Gabriel's throne and the fiery pit. There was a backlog in processing the unworthy, and the crowd stretched almost to the horizon. Every now and again one of them would begin to argue or to run, but the men in uniform beat them back. The whole scene was like a bad cartoon from a hippy radical newspaper, risible and melodramatic, a bit like a Nuremberg Rally or a sermon by Jerry Falwell.

Natla was the first to break the silence. "You lot are always getting on your high horse, aren't you?" she said, without a trace of an accent. "I've always wondered why."

"Someone without a sense of 'umour is making a point," murmured Jean-Ives.

"But where is the Lord?" said Winston, echoing my thoughts. "This sort of thing is just not on."

Yet again, I could feel myself being dragged into something that I'd rather not get involved with. What had those people down there ever done for me? However Jean-Ives and Winston were looking at me, expecting a reaction of some kind. Natla, who knew me better, was filing her claw like finger nails and humming "The Deadwood Stage."

"Maybe we should find out," I said eventually. All things being equal, I least believed in the virtue of curiosity. "Everybody back to the boat. We're following that staircase."

*****




According to Belinda Carlisle, heaven is a place on earth, and my first sight of the City of the Angels didn't do anything to disprove the notion. The staircase, with its smattering of the breathless saved, disappeared into what looked like a dense cloud bank

"So where were you when you were dead?" I said to Natla.

"Where I was buried after our lover's quarrel, sweet thing."

"So - you just woke up after the sounding off the trumpet and freed yourself from the grave."

Natla smiled. "You're a strange girl, Lara. Nobody else would have asked that question."

"Humour me."

"As it happens," said Natla, "my spirit didn't rest easy. I began to wander the earth."

"You were a ghost?"

"A ghost. A ka. A denizen of the dreamtime. You can choose your own rationale."

At that moment we cleared what looked like a cloud but which turned out to be a hill, and there in the valley below us, sitting next to a golden sea, was the City of Angels. When I saw what it looked like, I nearly choked and my blood turned cold.

"Mon dieu," said Jean-Ives. "C'est Byzantium."

"Good Lord," said Winston. "Constantinople. I visited it during my military service."

"But it is not. It 'as been rebuilt in le style ancien."

"I always thought that heaven would look like Jerusalem. As in the song."

"Surely you're not that surprised, guys?" said Natla, sourly.

"I don't think surprised covers the way I feel," I said.

"I'm glad I was in the deep freeze when all this Roman baloney hit the fan. This city sucks and its whole philosophy sucks."

At that moment I began to feel my fear and revulsion being swept away by a gentle perfumed breeze. I could hear a polyphonic choir warbling in the distance and an anachronistic tolling of church bells. Suddenly there was a narcotic smile spreading over my face. It was like the Grail all over again.

"We'd better keep our wits about us," I said, "or else we'll start singing Mistletoe and Wine."

"I am immune to such Papel nonsense," said Jean-Ives, raising a clenched fist. "Vive le Republic!"

"And I'm not really a fan of that sort of hysteria, Miss," said Winston. "I shall endeavour to keep Madam on the rails."

I kissed him.

"And I'll guard the boat," said Natla. "One look at a heathen idolator like me and they'll be firing up the propane powered hog roast. There's probably more than a spot fine for breaking the First Commandment."

"If you're not here when we get back," I said, "I'm setting the seraphim on you."

Natla battled her eyelashes, and put her hands behind her back like a schoolgirl. "You're so cute when you're ordering me about."

By this time we were just above the surface of the Sea of Marmaris, and next to us was the famous skyline, different, but familiar. We were approaching the Polis, the City, the centre of the world, the object of the world's desire. The minarets were missing, along with the Blue Mosque, but the cathedral of Hagia Sophia was there, brightly coloured and capped with almost unbearably bright gold. The Gatala bridge had not been constructed, but the sea walls were whitened and magnificent. We could see figures in white moving to and fro on the buildings and in the streets whilst to the west the queue of people from the staircase were entering by the Golden Gate. There was no pollution, no petrol fumes, no dirty ships hooting in the Golden Horn. The sea - when we touched down on it - was clear and calm, and it smelt of ambrosia instead of raw sewage. I wondered if angels went to the toilet.

"I could happily retire to this city," said Natla, "if only I wasn't an illegal alien. It would be so easy to turn one's back on the world and forget it all."

"Dreaming spires," said Winston, "or rather, dreaming domes. No wonder the New Jerusalem is compared to England."

"A corrupt indifference," said Jean-Ives. "An imperial power that demands everything and delivers nothing."

"That remains to be seen," I said.

We headed towards what Jean-Ives and I agreed was the Habour of Julian, just next to the Iron Gate. It seemed to most sensible place to try and reach the Imperial Palace from.

Of course there were guards waited there for us, dressed in the whitest, more flowery and most over decorated Roman military uniforms I'd ever seen. Kitsch was hardly a strong enough word for it.

"Who are you?" said a tall Julian Cleary look-alike, speaking Greek in the same way that the Queen speaks English.

"I am Lara Croft," I said, "and these are my companions, Mr. Winston Jeeves and Professor Jean-Ives Le Spartacan."

"I am Centurion Tadzio Ducas of the City Port Authorities and these are my heavily armed guards," he said, and there was a ripple of amusement from his men. "Perhaps you would kindly enlighten us as to why we should not throw the lot of you in jail."

"Is it illegal to be a visitor to the City?"

Centurion Tadzio smiled in a supercilious fashion. "It is illegal to have stolen the ship of the renegade Azrafil, and it is illegal to attempt to bring a creature of evil onto holy ground." He gestured at Natla and the Grace de Dieu.

"Vale, dude," said Natla. "Nice quads."

"Do shut up," I said to her. I turned to Centurion Tadzio again, and explained that we had neither stolen the ship nor did we intend to allow Natla ashore.

"So what do you want?"

They made us take off our shoes, and don robes.

"We can't have you entering the Court of the Pantocrator dressed like a common prostitute," said Centurion Tadzio, looking at my bare legs. "Although apparently the Basileus has a soft spot for common prostitutes. He nearly married one once according to the official history."

"And there's no chance of us actually meeting your Basileus in person?"

"Absolutely none."

"But we're ambassadors from earth."

"You could be ambassadors from Olympus itself and you still wouldn't get to see him."

We were escorted through the golden streets to the celestial equivalent of the Blachernae Palace. The citizens we passed were quietly discussing theological matters, books in hand, or composed new psalms to the glory of their Emperor. Their faces were unlined, their consciences unpricked and their freedom from responsibility for their fellow men complete. For them, the world outside the City did not exist. Life was good and if other people could not share in the goodness - well, then they were unworthy to. It was a self fulfilling prophecy. I wondered if one day a group of terrorists representing the unworthy of the earth would burst in here and blow up the heavenly version of Hagia Sofia just to prick the complacency of the company of angels. I wondered if that was what had happened with the Trumpet of the Last Judgement - a Pyrrhic attempt to influence the politics of the City.

We were shown into visitor's quarters by a smooth eunuch and given a servant. The house was drafty and bare, and I immediately realised that we had achieved nothing. So I decided to take a risk.

"Tell your masters that I am the Lara Croft who discovered the resting place of the Byzantine emperors, and that I am on a mission from Azrafil," I said.

"Are you sure you want me to tell them that?" said a minor court official who reminded me somewhat of the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office. "They're likely to cut off your ears and nose for insolence."

"I'll risk it."

A day passed, and we tried every word game and number game and general knowledge game we could think of. The novelty of being in the City of the Angels was rapidly wearing thin. It was like celebrating New Year's Eve in a convent.

"Heaven really is a place where nothing ever happens," I said.

*****




Then at last, they came for me.

"The Basileus will see you," said a rather grand looking man, the Byzantine equivalent of a Grand Vizier. "I hope that your affairs are in order?"

"You guys do realise that the world has ended?"

"I believe that some preliminary rumours have reached us in the latest influx of refugees, but we have far more important matters to attend to," he said.

"Such as what?"

"Things that only a citizen might appreciate. Theological disputes. Chariot racing. The annual competition to see how many angels can squeeze themselves on to the head of a needle."

My approach to the Imperial Chambers of the Basileus took several hours. Firstly they washed me and dressed me in suitable clothing. Then they instructed me on Court etiquette such as how to address the Basileus -"G'Day me old mucker" was a definite no-no - and told me not to speak until spoken to. The whole affair was like waiting outside the headmistress' office for a good thrashing.

Then the moment came, and I was permitted to enter the Presence with my forehead sliding along the marble floor, propelling myself with my knees and elbows. There was a smelt of incense and I could see out of the corner of my eyes a bright light. A choir - accompanied by a large cacophony of tinkling bells, and gongs, and drums - was singing a song about the fabulousness of the Basileus. As I stopped, they stopped, and there was a complete silence.

"You may raise yourself", said a mild voice.

I sat back on my heels, and there - seated on a throne surrounded by acolytes and with his family around him - was Jesus Christ.

*****




"Your name," said the Basileus, glancing at a parchment being held up for his attention, "is Lara Croft and you come from our province of Britannia?"

It's kind of awe-inspiring to meet an historical figure. I'd met Alexander the Great, Set, Horus and a number of other fabled figures. However being English with a smattering of Catholicism, I couldn't help but be a little star struck. He look just like his icons - flowing hair and beard, dark skin, and deeply lined mournful eyes - a bit like a weary Osama bin Laden. He held one hand in front of him, with the palm facing outwards, and touched his rather thin lips with the finger nails of two fingers as if he was giving a permanent benediction. His feet, dressed in soft sandals and protruding from beneath the hems of his Imperial robes, bore the scars of the Crucifixion.

"Yes, my Lord," I replied.

"My advisors tell me that you have a song - Jerusalem - which asks the rhetorical question 'And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's pastures green'?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Flattered as I am by the loyalty shown to your emperor, I'm afraid to report than I have never visited your kingdom."

There was a polite murmur of laughter.

"How do you find our City of the Angels?"

I was slightly at a loss for words. "It's very ... clean," I said eventually.

"Did not one of your poets say that cleanliness was next to godliness?"

There were some cries of appreciation and some applause at this evidence of the learnedness of the Basileus.

"Yes, my Lord."

The Basileus received a goblet of wine and then sat staring at me in an affable fashion. I wondered if I was supposed to speak.

"If I may be permitted a question phrased in the form of a parable," he said, eventually, "imagine that you were in your house cooking the most difficult but worthwhile of dishes, filled with expensive spices and made from the rarest of animals - a once in a lifetime creation. Then imagine that you looked out of the window and there were two dogs fighting each other to the death in the yard. What would you do - abandon your culinary creation at a critical moment to separate the two dogs, or ignore them as unimportant, given that dogs will always fight but that a true act of creation comes only once in a lifetime?"

I looked him in the eye for a long second. "My Lord," I said, "I would go and separate the dogs. Even a dog's life is more important than a pretentious meal."

There was a long silence. The entire court looked at me with neutral, empty faces. They resembled statues - calm and cold. Then the Basileus chuckled, and the others permitted themselves signs of icy amusement.

"That, presumably, is why I am what I am and you are what you are," he said, in a genial tone. "However, I feel that you are being disingenuous. My advisors tell me that you have often sacrificed lives in pursuit of some - what was the word that you used? For some 'pretentious' bauble, or some lump of gold? One feels that you would rescue the meal."

"My Lord ... " I began, but my forehead was pushed to the floor by the guard standing behind me. I hadn't been addressed.

"Oh let her up," said the Basileus' voice. "I'm sure she meant to use the vocative rather than the inquisitorial."

I sat up again.

"You had an observation, child?" he said.

"Yes, my Lord."

"Proceed."

"You are the shepherd whereas I am but a sheep," I said. "Surely your love for your flock should be greater than mine?"

"You are questioning my love for my subjects?"

There was a rustling from all round me, and the faces of one or two courtiers flushed red with anger.

"My Lord. I am not questioning your love, which I'm sure is as that of a father for his children," I said hastily. "I merely wondered if you were aware of the people who are administering the practical side of that love."

The Basileus smiled gently. "I see everything, should I choose to look. I know everything, should I choose to remember. My dominion is vast and my power unlimited."

He rose to get to his feet, and my forehead was pushed to the floor again.

"Thank you for your time," said the Basileus, and the audience was over.

5. Flat earth

We were rather a disgruntled group as we reboarded the Grace de Dieu. Winston, in particular, was looking rather doleful - his bushy moustache positively drooped and his shoulders were round.

"What is it," I said, hooking my arm through his.

"I realise that Madam doesn't tend to let things get to her, but I am not so strong," he said. "Nazis working with angels. A Christ who doesn't care. It all rather takes the biscuit."

"I'm sure things aren't what they seem. Everything is out of whack. I'm sure that this isn't a normal state of affairs."

Jean-Ives snorted quietly, but he kept his thoughts to himself. I reflected that if angels were prepared to work with devils, as I had seen in Kosovo, and were only prepared to stop the fighting because to protect an ancient tomb, and not because of some humanitarian impulse, then maybe Jean-Ives' silent scepticism was at least partially justified.

Natla was looking very un-Natla-like. She was seated quietly in the boat, trying not to draw attention to herself.

"Can we go yet?" she asked, in a plaintive voice. "This place doesn't have good vibes."

"We'll go for now, but I can't help feeling that all is not well in the Kingdom of Heaven."

Back at the Isle of Fools, we lay about, strangely exhausted.

Natla was bemused. "I realise that my grasp of modern affairs is sometimes sketchy," she said, "but what was it that these Nazis guys did that was so different from the Christian guys?"

"They slaughtered millions of non-Christians such as the Jews, for example," said Winston, hotly. "They were intolerant of people that didn't agree with them, they tried to expand their territory and imbue it with their warped philosophy. They killed homosexuals, ethnic minorities, intellectuals. They rewrote history to glorify themselves and demonise their opponents. They wanted to subjugate the earth under one order, with one leader, with an elite of people chosen for their so-called purity."

"Yes, dude," said Natla. "I know all that, but what about the Nazis?"

Winston looked as if he was going to punch her in the face, but he controlled himself and went to be alone.

"What?" said Natla. She managed to perform a baffled shrug that included her wings.

I sat by Jean-Ives and we returned to smoking and drinking. Sometimes inactivity was a virtue.

"Do you like Italian wine?" I said to him.

"It is pleasant enough, but it lacks character."

"Did you get a lot?"

"D'assez."

"Can I try some of that?" said Natla. "And one of those cigarettes?"

"Certainement."

"We created those intoxicant-containing plants that you love so much, you know. Tobacco, marijuana, cocoa, coffee, tea, coca. In the labs of Atlantis. It's amusing to see that your modern scientists are only just beginning to do the same thing with what they regard as more useful drugs."

"To Atlantis," said Jean-Ives, raising his glass. "Le Paris du monde ancien."

"And to Natla, its Marie Curie," I said, with a straight face.

"Gee guys!" Natla blushed. "Thanks."

*****




Jean-Ives was spreading out the parchment that Natla claimed I had brought back from the sewers of Rome.

"It is a treatise on the Aristotle view of the universe," he explained, in laboured English. "This is the view, opposed to our modern one of Galileo and Copernicus, that the earth is the stationary centre of toute le monde."

The parchment had an illustration of a saucerlike flat earth with, above it, embedded in giant crystal domes, the stars. The sun and the moon were like faces stuck on the celestial ceiling.

"There are many spheres of 'eaven to which the 'eavenly bodies are attached, and they revolve over the earth ."

"How cute," said Natla. "Just like one of those mobiles you hang over a baby's cot."

"Naturellement, the earth - being flat - is surrounded by a circular ocean. Where that sea is furthest from the heat of the sun, it freezes. Therefore the entire earth is ringed by ice."

"I expect that when they travelled to the far north and to the far south and found endless snow, it only confirmed their theory," I said. "Of course, one could never travel far enough west to find the West Pole, but they weren't to know that."

"Believe it or not there was a West Pole once, when the earth used to spin end over end. The equator went through Atlantis from north to south," said Natla.

I lit another cigarette and lay back on the sand, blowing smoke rings. I wasn't particularly interested in any of it. I was fast coming to the conclusion that if God didn't care, neither should I.

"So," I said lazily. "What makes the spheres revolve?"

"According to this writer, a perpetual motion mechanism," said Jean-Ives. "He speculates that there is a giant machine buried deep in the earth, driven by the power of volcanoes."

I couldn't be bothered so I went to find Winston.

*****




We lay in the Grace de Dieu afterwards, entwined in each others' arms. I was playing with Winston's moustache with a gentle finger.

"What do you think I should do, Mr. Jeeves?" I asked him.

"I really don't know, Miss."

"Should we stay here? Plant a bit of garden. Raise some little Winstons and Laras?"

"I could build a cabin from palm tree logs," mused Winston. "We could channel fresh water from further inland if we managed to get hold of some plastic piping."

"A few goats and chickens. Maybe a herd of Herefords."

"I'm not sure that Herefords could cope with the heat, Madam. Come to think of it, I'm not sure that plants could cope with continual daylight."

"This sun thing is a bit of a bugger," I said.

"Maybe we should investigate it," said Winston. "If only for the opportunity to plant a few rose bushes."

I rested my chin on his chest and looked into his eyes. They were a bizarre mixture of brown and green, tending to change colour at different times.

"Do you love me?"

"Of course I do, Madam. That should be obvious."

"Then it should be equally obvious how I feel about you."

"Of course, Miss."

We kissed and then we got up.

"There is one thing that I noticed," said Winston, pulling on his trousers. "If Madam would raise the boat out of the water a few feet."

We stood looking at the underside of the Grace de Dieu.

"Good Lord," I said.

"Exactly," said Winston.

Stuck to one side of the keel was a network of red fibrous webbing - a sort of hidden harness. The red stuff was obviously Atlantean. There was also something that looked like a breathing apparatus fashioned out of intestines and bladders.

"She hitched a lift as a stowaway," I said. "So that's how she found us. But when exactly did she start? Before Rome? Before the boat even arrived?"

"It's an interesting question, Miss."

"Keep this between ourselves for now, Winston."

"Of course, Miss."

*****




We found some containers and filled them with water. From a derelict hospital we took a bucket of sand, some fire extinguishers and a fire axe, as well as some breathing apparatus. Finally we found some cold weather clothing and some fire blankets, as well as a climbing rope. It was like indulging in retail therapy in the shopping mall from "Dawn of the Dead".

"Ready?" I said.

I told the Grace de Dieu to take us up one thousand feet. The sky was clearer and the sun brighter, but apart from that the only unusually thing was that our ears didn�t pop. I took us up another thousand and then ten thousand. At one hundred thousand feet, there was no sign of thinning air and none of us seemed to be suffering from altitude sickness. The sun, however, was hotter than ever; we seemed to be travelling upwards through a temperature inversion. I looked out over the earth, but the horizon disappeared into a haze. We seemed to be in a circle of land, but it was impossible to tell if it was flat or spherical.

"O.K.," I said. "Let's really push it. Everybody get under the fire blankets and have that oxygen cylinder ready."

I filled my lungs with air and then, in a whisper, told the ship to rise to one thousand miles.

Immediately we were engulfed with flames. The rigging and the deck planking caught fire all around us.

"Sea level!" I yelled.

We hastily abandoned ship, and then climbed back on board to get to work with fire fighting equipment. Fortunately the Grace de Dieu, like ourselves, was only singed.

"Whatever that was," observed Natla, snipping burnt bits out of her blonde mop of hair, "it wasn't the sun as we know it."

"Why not?"

"The real sun would have vapourised us."

"And the real sun isn't only a thousand miles from sea level."

"If this is un systeme Ptolemaic," said Jean-Ives, "then why was not the sun embedded in a crystal sphere?"

"Maybe it was, old chap," said Winston. "Maybe it was sticking out from the surface."

"D'accord, mon brave."

"Step two," I said. "Get that cold weather clothing on, and then rope yourselves and the breathing apparatus to the ship."

I instructed the Grace de Dieu to head west thirteen thousand miles. I wasn't sure what the diameter of the globe was at our latitude, but I reckoned that thirteen thousand miles ought to take us at least once around a spherical world, wherever we were.

There was a crash and I was knocked unconscious.

*****




I found myself struggling back to awareness. There was something over my mouth, which I tried to claw away. My eyes weren't focussing properly, but I could see a red fire ball, and I could feel a stinging burning on my skin. I became aware of a pain in my ears - there was absolutely no sound. I decided that I must be waking from a dream, and attempted to sit up. However, I appeared to be welded to the surface that I was lying on.

The fire ball was moving and in its glow I caught a glimpse of various things. There was a sloping turquoise surface above me, curving high into the sky. Its surface was studded with lights and tiny luminous fire balls. I couldn't tell if it was moving or whether my eyes were swimming.

Then I saw Natla. She was holding one hand high - the red fire ball was being generated from her wrist. Her other hand was being used to try and push the oxygen mask over my mouth. She was yelling something, but making no sound. Her face was beginning to be encrusted by the frozen water vapour issuing from her mouth, and her skin was blue. Suddenly she doubled up, gasping, and the fireball - our only source of heat - went out. The deck of the Grace de Dieu was bathed in a ghastly aquamarine light and a vicious cold clamped down upon us.

I managed a tiny shred of thought in my confusion.

"Take us to the Isle of Fools," I tried to say, but the air disappeared from my mouth and my tongue froze.

The ship groaned beneath me, twisting like a whale on a beach. It rocked from side to side, but didn't move. There was no sound, but I could see some of the deck planks springing free or snapping in two. As if in slow motion, the main mast began to fall.

I cupped my hands over my mouth and made a tiny air pocket into which I repeated my command.

The Grace de Dieu turned turtle in its efforts to be free. Below me there appeared a bottomless void, flanked by the turquoise sphere. I couldn't see Jean-Ives or Winston, but I guessed that, like me, they were frozen to the ship. Natla, however, fell. I would have yelled if I could. She landed in the ropes tangled around the top of the mast, which itself was barely connected to the ship, and hung there like a floppy blonde angel. My heart leapt into my mouth and I suddenly found myself overwhelmed with intense feelings of concern for her. I didn't know what I'd do if she was lost.

I struggled to pull myself free, my lungs crying out for air. I could see the breathing apparatus a few feet away, wedged under the edge of the gunwale. It was too much for me, and I fainted.

*****




I awoke to warmth. I was lying under cover, with a body next to mind. I couldn't open my eyes, but I reached out a hand to touch the face of the person, and found Winston's moustache. I took a shuddering breathe of relief.

"Hi," said Natla's voice, and a hand reached around behind my head. "Drink some of this."

It was cool water in a coconut shell and it tasted just wonderful.

I rubbed my eyes until I could see. Nearby Jean-Ives was lying asleep, covered by a blanket.

"What happened?"

"We were back here when I woke up," said Natla. "That was a few days ago."

"You saved my life back there."

"I guess."

"Thank you."

Natla bit her lip, and tears appeared in her eyes. She pulled her wings around herself like a shawl, and smiled. I struggled up, wincing at the frostbite burns on my skin, and embraced her. I gave her a chaste kiss.

"Thank you," I said again.

Natla wiped her snuffling nose with the heel of her hand. "I don't think I can cope with you being nice," she said.

I ruffled her golden hair. "Don't worry. I'll be back to my nasty old self any minute now."

"I look forward to it," said Natla.

I followed her outside, where I found that she had been busy. From somewhere in the interior of the island she had gathered mud, which she had sun baked into mud bricks. She had built a sort of oven with a chimney, in which she had hung fillets of fish that she'd caught in the lagoon. Her diving technique had obviously improved. She handed me a piece of the dried, smoked fish to chew. It was delicious. From the fibres of some plant or other she'd had woven a large net affair, which she had set up over our shelter. Finally, best of all, she had made some chutes from the stems of a bamboo-like plant, which were channelling water from farther up the hill into a stone-lined pool. I splashed my face in the water.

"You've been very busy", I said. "I didn't think that you effete Californian types did manual labour."

"I wasn't always a Queen," said Natla. "When I was young I was quite an ordinary Atlantean girl. We learned these sorts of things."

"What did your family do?"

Natla smiled. "My father was a soldier and my mother was a slave," she said.

"Were you married?"

"Once."

"So no children?"

Natla regarded me gravely for a second. "Yes. Not all of the same species," she said. "You killed at least one of them. Poor baby. Born prematurely so that he was in no position to defend himself. I wish I could have been there at the end."

I recalled the giant legless mutant that I had been forced to fight in the bowls of Atlantis. I looked at my hands. "I can remember when it ... when he realised he was dying," I said, gently. "He was staring down at the bullet holes in his body, and there was this expression of total astonishment on his face."

Natla gazed at the horizon without saying anything.

"For what it's worth, I'm sorry," I said.

"You shouldn't have shot at the Scion."

"I thought it was the right thing to do," I said. "You'd stolen it from me, you'd tried to kill me and you were gabbling on about world domination."

"I think I'll go for a swim," said Natla. "Maybe you ought to check on the ship."

For a long time I sat there thinking. I couldn't think of how I was supposed to treat Natla. It was far from clear.

So, eventually, I went to look over the Grace de Dieu. It was a shock. The ship had almost been ripped in two, with part of the bow missing. The upper part of the rigging and decking were burned and charred. Whatever else she was, she wasn't sea-worthy. From the look of her she might manage one or two or flights before she disintegrated entirely. I realised that we didn't really have the tools or the expertise to repair her.

I cursed my abortive expedition to map the edges of the earth. It had lead us nowhere, and it had nearly killed us.

Then I remembered that we could have any help we needed. Maybe I could bring back Noah or the man who had built the Argo, I thought. I searched through the ruins of the ship and all around it for an hour or more, but the golden net had disappeared. It must have fallen overboard. From now on, there would be no bringing people back. From now on, we were on our own.

*****




After a few days, it became clear that - between us, and despite everything - we were coming up with a plan.

"If le monde is as it appears to be from our experiences," said Jean-Ives, "then, donc, there are certain consequences."

"When we were in that icy place," said Winston, "it seemed to us that the crystal sphere was sloping inwards towards the earth, not away."

I agreed. Jean-Ives drew a circle in the sand. "This is the sphere," he said. Then a third of the way from the top of the circle he draw a horizontal line. "And this is the surface of the flat earth that we are standing upon."

"And here directly above us," said Winston, drawing a blob at the zenith of the circle, "is the sun that we nearly crashed into. The cold place is at the edge of the earth."

"The sun is stationary, and so the sphere is stationary."

"We're lucky it wasn't moving when we crashed into it," I said.

"Quite so, Madam," said Winston. "The sun sets in the west and we might have been dragged below the horizon. At any rate - Jean-Ives believes that the cosmos has somehow been recreated to resemble a more primitive model. A model more in keeping with scripture."

"C'est incroyable," said Jean-Ives, "mais peut-etre it is not possible to stage a literal resurrection without changing the laws of science."

As I digested this theory, the goosebumps rose upon my skin. If they were right then there was little prospect of escape and the fiery tortures of hell awaited me. The sheer power needed to change the world from a rational one to a metaphysical one made me feel uneasy. I wondered at the nerve that I had displayed waltzing into the court of the Basileus as if he was just another Oriental potentate.

"I think incroyable is the word," I said. "So - basically we're buggered."

"Maybe not, Miss," said Winston. "Jean-Ives?"

"Under the surface of the earth is the mechanism that drives the spheres. At the moment it is idle, and time has stopped, as predicted in various religious writings."

"Time is measured in this universe by something concrete - the rising and the setting of the sun. We were wondering what might happen if we managed to restart the mechanism in reverse."

"Is it possible that we might travel backwards in time?" asked Jean-Ives. "Is it possible that we would reach a point before the current chain of events were put into motion?"

Natla had been listening to the conversation with a faint smile on her face, as if she had been listening to gifted children telling a tall story.

"It's a doozy of a plan," she said, "but there is a flaw to it. The centre of the sphere surrounding the earth must be buried thousands of miles below us. How would we get there?"

"I suppose you can think of better idea?" I said.

"Sure can," said Natla. "I think Jean-Ives' theory about us living in an ancient model of the universe is correct, and a very clever deduction."

Jean-Ives bowed. "Merci."

"It started me thinking about the old days in Atlantis, and an experiment that Tihocan attempted, but which he could never get to work."

"And am I going to like hearing about it?" I said.

"I don't know, but you might as well hear me out."

"Just ... go ahead."

"Tihocan tried to make a time machine," said Natla. "Unfortunately, we had never heard of the theory of relativity, or any of the aspects of modern physics. For us, we simply lived in a Newtonian universe. We knew the world was round and that the earth orbited the sun, but we didn't know about the speed of light or the mathematical unlikehood of time travel. We had the energy - Tihocan knew about the transmutation of element into element, and of mass into energy - but we didn't have the right theory. It was a bummer. Now we are living in a version of the universe where Tihocan's theories would have been correct. Maybe - now - his time machine might work."

6. The man from Atlantis

Approximately seventy miles northwest of the Black Sea port of Sokhumi in the country of Abkhazia lies a peninsula, the most distant part of the volcanic chain which includes the Caucasus Mountains. It does not appear on any contemporary maps, since for most of the 20th century the Black Sea fleet of the U.S.S.R. had decreed that this area of coastline was too navally sensitive to be depicted. In previous times, this area has been both a Byzantine theme - Phanagoria - and the northern reaches of a semi-mythical kingdom - Colchis, home of the Golden Fleece. In prehistoric times it was part of a mountain range that belonged first to Natla and then, after her arrest, to Tihocan. When water from the Mediterranean flooded in through the Straits of Bosphorus, the only part of this Atlantean kingdom to remain was the mountain top, with its golden pyramid buried under volcanic ash. Some time after the flood the gap between the island and the mainland had been filled in, firstly with a causeway and then - when a concerted effort to bury the pyramid was made - by a long tumulus of rock and earth, leading to the formation of a featureless peninsula with a bulbous tip. A new island, bounded on the landward site by a new sea marsh, had been created thanks to the activities of Natla Mining. In 1996 when the mountain exploded, Abkhazia was in the middle of a civil war with Eduard Shevardnadze and the government of next door Georgia, from which Abkhazia was trying to detach itself. The coastal towns were depopulated by a massive refugee exodus, and reporting on the ground was lost in the fog of war. If the satellites in orbit spotted the 'eruption', they didn't make it public knowledge, even if the public had been remotely interested in an unknown volcano in the middle of nowhere. Only Natla, with her vast wealth and her friends in high places, could have arranged to have a mine there, but then in these parts the American dollar is king. Maybe Natla Technologies had bought itself a shroud of secrecy regarding her apparent disappearance to avoid scaring the shareholders.

The last time that I'd seen the mountain it had hidden under a mushroom cloud of volcanic ash. I'd been speeding away on one of Natla's speedboats. I hadn't bothered to hang around to see what had remained, and so I wasn't sure what to expect. The golden pyramid had probably been destroyed, but since the explosion had been upwards, I expected the peninsula to still be there.

As the crumbling Grace de Dieu halted above it, I could see that it resembled a cross-section of an avocado pear, with a sea-filled crater where the stone would be. There was a radiating ring of fallen tree trunks over the rest of the peninsula, along with a few years growth consisting of younger plants. In the cliff surrounding the blast crater were the remains of caves and tunnels that must have fed the base of the pyramid, the remnants of this particular piece of Atlantis. No doubt they reached far down into the rock bed under the ocean.

Planks were falling from the ship and so I landed us on a beach bounded by the charred remnants of subtropical trees. The moment the Grace De Dieu touched down, it disintegrated into a pile of kindling.

"She was a good ship," said Winston.

The beach sloped up to a black cliff at the base of which was the entrance to a sea cave. Above us towered the mountain.

"If you like," said Natla, "I can fly up there and take a look."

"Is this place going to be full of giant eggs containing dangerous mutants?"

"When you pulled the plug I expect you aborted them all."

"I think we'll stick together."

"Your call."

We had with us the minimum requirements for the expedition - clothing, torches, food, ropes - but no weapons except for a spear each, as well as Natla's apparatus for generating fire balls. I realised that we were going to be completely in her hands. The alternatives were worse.

"May we have a word?" I said, drawing her to one side.

"O.K.," said Natla. "May I have one of your cigarettes?"

"I've got some questions."

Natla blew a plume of smoke, watching me in a speculative way. Then she reached into the back of her clothing. She handed an object to me. I snorted - it was the fragment of the Scion from my house.

"I guess you assumed I was buried in the States," said Natla. "Actually, I'd left instructions to be buried in the land of my birth. I was originally from Leonesse, in the northern part of the Atlantis continent, on a windy upland plateau whose remains are now called Salisbury Plain; I was born human. Much later I ordered a huge stone temple to be built there, in thanks for my good fortune to be elevated from peasant to goddess. They say America is the land of opportunity, but then they don't know about Atlantis. I own a piece of land that is on loan to the British Ministry of Defense - out of bounds to the general public. My servants buried me there with my possessions, in preparation for the afterlife."

"Your servants?" I interrupted.

"My family and all the people on my personal staff in the States. You met some of them. Buried in my tomb with me was my ornithopter. Iwas less disorientated than the rest of humanity when the Resurrection hit. I flew the hundred miles to your house in less than an hour. I lifted the Scion and I hitched a ride on your ship. I had a hunch that whatever was going on, you'd be involved."

I held up the Scion. "And what use is this?"

Natla took it, and manipulated it. "As you know, the Scion has three parts." The Scion had fallen to pieces, leaving one third intact. "This part - the only undamaged part - is the section that belonged to Tihocan. Even an itty bit of the Scion is a damned powerful thing. Tihocan's time machine was powered using his Third."

"So you planned to get us here all along?"

"No," said Natla. "I was going to hang around with you for a bit, see what your mood was, maybe persuade you to tag along with me."

I slapped the cigarette out of her mouth and pushed her to the ground.

"You're lucky that you can't be killed again," I said, holding her throat in my hands. "Why is it that whenever I begin to forgive you I find that you haven't changed one bit?"

Natla coughed, and her eyes glowed. "The feeling," she croaked, "is mutual."

I got off her.

"When will you stop manipulating people?" I said.

"And when will you stop being such a fucking psycho? Who made you queen?"

"That's fucking rich."

Natla drew herself up. "I earned my position," she said, with great gravitas. "You should have more respect."

I looked at her for a moment. Then I began to laugh, and the tears started to sparkle in her eyes.

"Dream on, your Highness," I said, and walked away.

"I hate you!" shouted Natla. "I really really hate you. You ungrateful motherfucker!"

*****




Atlantis stank.

When I'd last been there, the walls had been pulsing with blood, blood carried in a network of stone veins. It had shone with a red luminescence and had been warm to the touch. It was like the last thing that a fly sees as it drown in the clutches of a carnivorous pitcher plant, separated from the air and from freedom by a thin scarlet veined membrane. Then there'd been a continuous sound, the sort of sound that one hears when one puts earplugs in. It was a sort of pulsing white noise, the noise of liquid being forced through narrow passages by a distant heart. The continually moving walls and floors had given the whole place a sense of disorientation, and Id been loathe to walk on the surfaces of this giant biomechanical building. I'd been sweating with the weirdness of it all. My nerves had been strung out with a sort of horror. I'd wanted to pee my pants.

Then the heart had died in the explosion that had ripped the heart out of the golden pyramid. The blood had slowed and congealed. The stone had softened and decayed. Everything was a black stinking marsh dotted with gobbets of what resembled gangrenous flesh. Walk on the surface an your feet sank and then came back slimy. Kick a stone and it would quiver and a cloud of sandflies would buzz up. The air was barely breathable and made you want to vomit.

Winston put his arm round my shoulder. "Your turn," he said, passing the breathing apparatus to me so that I could take a few sweet breaths. "Are you bearing up?"

"Yes darling," I said. "This place has uncomfortable memories, you know."

"Chin up old girl. Think of the potential prize."

"It's so hot. So disgusting."

"All very Black Hole of Calcutta."

"Quite."

"Need some of that stiff upper lip."

"I could murder a cup of tea."

"Quite."

Jean-Ives was trying to shake some gore from his fingers. "Degoutant," he said. "Who would 'ave thought that the great Atlantis was an 'uge charnel pit?"

"Le Trou De Hell," I said.

"Tres amusante," said Jean-Ives with a faint smile. "If only we were in Paris."

I shone my torch around the cavern and upwards. On the wall, high up, were objects like giant stone roses - the beds for the giant green eggs that Atlantean monsters had hatched from. Chunky remnants of egg shell littered the ground, and there were skeletons, half covered with rotting flesh, their semi-circle of incisors gaping at me like sprung gin traps. It seemed that monsters didn't get to rise from the grave and face judgement. I envied them.

I swung the beam round and jumped out of my skin. Leaning against the wall was a centaur, its eyes glistening. Then I realised that it was dead, and that what I had seem were empty eye sockets filled with slime. I wondered how it had come to expire whilst standing up. Maybe the shock wave had killed it. The flesh underneath the transparent skin was a white as waterlogged feet.

"She's coming back," said Winston, indicating a flickering light in the distance. It bobbed up and down like Tinkerbell as Natla flapped her leathery wings. As I'd said - uncomfortable memories.

Natla landed with a squelch. Her face was sober and drawn, as if she'd just come back to find that her house had been vandalised. "It's much better up ahead - only about fifteen minutes walk. There's a hematoaulic elevator that I got working which will take us down to a less damaged area."

"Is there power?" I said.

"Yes - from the hydrothermal generators."

The hematoaulic elevator resembled a large antibiotic capsule with transparent walls within which was a ring of seats. The top half and the bottom half revolved in opposite directions to reveal a door, which shut again after us. The interior seemed to be lit by the sort of glowing things that teenagers wave around at clubs. Around us we could see black liquid.

Natla tried a button on the wall. There was a pulse of red light all around us and the elevator shuddered.

"Come on, damn you," she said. "It worked before. Damn piece of junk."

Suddenly the liquid around the capsule glowed bright red and there was the thud of a heart beat. The elevator dropped about ten yards and then slowed. A second heart beat propelled us along again, and by fits and starts we progressed downwards like a corpuscle in an atherosclerotic artery.

"La me donne la nausee," said Jean-Ives at one point, clamping a white hand over his mouth.

"Chill out, little bro," said Natla. "Nearly there."

"This is like Fantastic Voyage," whispered Winston.

"Maybe she'll get attacked by leucocytes," I said, sourly.

After many heart beats we stepped out of the device, there, looking much less gloomy than I remembered was a giant Atlantean room. Flowing through the middle in a rocky trench was a spitting river of lava. To the side was a lake enclosed in a bubble from which superheated steam was rising. There was an asthmatic wheezing from machinery situated high up in the ribcage-like ceiling - presumably the hydrothermal generators.

"Welcome to what used to be sea level," said Natla.

"Magnifique," said Jean-Ives. "This is all yours?"

"It used to be, but Tihocan took it over as his workshop. We're lucky he didn't fill the place with sea water. He was a real one for water features."

"And you and Tihocan and Qualopec - you were the rulers of an empire that stretched from Russia to America?"

"We were."

"I didn't completely realise before," said Jean-Ives, "but when I see all of this ..." He gestured at the giant room.

"Nearly every ancient civilisation was built out of the remains of our kingdoms," said Natla. "Science and philosophy grew out of the fragments of our knowledge that survived. Even some of the gods are based on pale memories of our rule."

"You are truly a remarkable woman," said Jean-Ives, kissing her hand.

"Well past my sell buy date, unfortunately. But thank you."

*****


Natla took the Third and placed it into a recess on the side of a Gigeresque machine. There was a deep rumbling and a rippling of glistening various surfaces, and Tihocan's time machine came to life. Embedded within the lamblike machinery was a giant green egg. A long track led to a vertical tunnel flanked with white neurons that sparkled with electricity. It disappeared into the depths.

"How does it work?" I asked Natla.

"Thought is faster than the speed of light," she said.

"So - we're time travelling using thought?"

"I'm jiving you. It's complicated, but Tihocan had a theory that every particle has a set of electromagnetic switches that 'describes' it completely. For example, one set of switches dictates 'where' it is, whilst another set of switches dictates 'what' it is. He designed this contraption to reset the switches that say 'when' it is."

"And the egg?"

"It's a time bubble. Time within it is set to stand still, regardless of what is happening outside the egg. It needs no power - the switches are set to no time until an external mechanism is activated."

"And what happened to the people inside this time capsule when it didn't work?"

Natla smiled. "Ever eaten a soft-boiled egg and found a foetus in it?" she said. "Now if you'll give me some space, I have to work out how to set this doohickey for the 21st century. Any of you dudes seen a technical manual lying around here?" I stared at her and she put her hands on her hips. "Joke."

Jean-Ives, Winston and I sat down to eat and drink. It escaped none of us that this could we our last meal together.

"This is going to be interesting," said Winston. "I can't imagine what I'm going to say to people if we suddenly pop into existence in the year 2001 after we're supposed to be dead."

"I'll just say I wasn't dead," I said.

"It's all right for you, Miss. You always did look youthful. You can get away with it. How am I going to explain my change from an old man into a young one?"

"Just tell them that you're only as young as the woman you feel."

Winston blushed. "Maybe I'll take an alias," he said, stroking his moustache. "A long lost relative. I could take my grandfather's name."

"What - Hillary? That's a bit girly, isn't it?? George is a nice name."

"The name Hillary comes from a Roman name meaning cheerful, Madam."

"I'm only teasing. If you want to be called Hillary, I promise to try not to giggle too much."

"Thank you, Miss."

I kissed him, the laughter escaping through my lips.

"I shall return to Paris and make merry with les filles," said Jean-Ives. "The mind of a vieux in a young body. I spent too much of my real youth with the nose stuck in the book."

He and I clinked our cups of wine.

It was about an hour later that Natla finally came over to us.

"Anything to drink for the working gal?" she said, accepting some wine. "I think - I hope - I've fixed it."

She sat down and explained it to us. We would enter the egg, which was filled with a white translucent albumen-like liquid, and time would freeze. Outside, the machine would activate and we would drop backwards through time. Whatever date that we arrived we would awake to find ourselves in an historically appropriate place. Jean-Ives would find probably himself in his house in Alexandria. Winston and I would probably arrive at Croft Mansion.

"It's a hysteresis thing," said Natla. "Time will place us wherever there will be the least disruption."

"And how will we will avert the Resurrection?"br>
"You leave that to me."

I gave her a very long look. Natla returned my gaze without blinking, her bright eyes framed by her shock of blonde hair, her hands calmly folded. She didn't smile.

"I'll be watching you," I said.

"I'd appreciate that," said Natla. "Sometimes I just don't get it, do I?"

I straightened my clothes and sighed. "Let's do it," I said. I had no choice.

We stood facing the time machine whilst Natla went to a control panel. Winston took my hand.

There was a crackling sound and the edge of the giant egg parted. Inside was a curve of gelatinous substance.

"I'll unfreeze the time long enough for us to get inside," called Natla.

The egg interior shivered and green and red lights appeared inside it. Suddenly, a black claw erupted through the surface and clamped onto the rim of the shell.

We were rooted to the spot with shock. As we watched a black Atlantean soldier drone climbed out, and stood to attention in front of the machine. Natla was backing away, her wrists held up ready to fire. A second drone climbed out, and stood facing the first, one on each side of the egg opening.

Finally, a dark robotic figure wearing a conical helmet emerged. I remembered him from my Scion-induced visions. It was Tihocan.

*****


Tihocan's eyes were covered with objects that looked like a cross between Raybans and a Venetian blind. I could see eyes glinting through the slats, and hear his breathing through his mask. His voice had a very faint tinge of electronic harmonics. It was like bumping into Darth Vadar.

He bowed. "Greetings to Her Royal Highness Natla, Ruler, Empress and Goddess of the Territories of the West," he said.

Natla pulled herself together. "Greetings to His Royal Highness Tihocan, Ruler, Emperor and God of the Territories of the East," she said, with an equally elaborate bow.

"My Royal sister seems in good health," said Tihocan, extending his arms. "Will you exchange with me a fraternal kiss?"

They embraced stiffly, kissing the air next to each other's cheeks.

"You too seem to be in remarkable health, my Royal brother."

"We and our late brother Qualopec were given ample time to recover from the injuries which Your Highness' unfortunate policies inflicted upon us."

"We am glad," said Natla.

"We remember that as We stood watching Your Highness being sealed into your frozen prison - a prison that We designed to hold you for eternity - and We remarked to our brother Qualopec that no prison could last forever."

"As Your Highness can see. A remarkable turn of events."

"Our sister Natla is a clever woman, We said. Somehow someday she will be free again. He thought that We were being over cautious."

"Qualopec always had his head screwed on," said Natla, half to herself.

"Only after his spinal column was destroyed," said Tihocan.

Natla bowed her head. "We regret that."

"So We conceived this plan. We knew that when Your Highness was released you would somehow find your way here, to our time travel apparatus. We knew that Your Highness would try to find a way to make it function correctly. We knew that you would try and return to the Sacred Regality of Atlantis."

"You have conceived of a masterly if obsessive strategy to entrap Us, my Royal brother. You have even contrived to construct an empty tomb for yourself, and hidden the Scion fragment within."

"We were the outer wall of your prison. The ward of evil can take no risks."

They bowed to each other with deep solemnity. I was reminded of two pompous samurai about to chop each other into cat food. I was about to intervene, when I noticed that Tihocan had not straightened up from his bow. At the same moment, there was a screech from one of the Atlantean drones. The two monsters were holding their faces and sinking slowly to their knees.

I grabbed Winston and Jean-Ives by the arms.

"Get to cover," I shouted.

The Atlantean drones were disintegrating as we watched. It was as if a massive speeded up decaying process was taking place. Their skin became wrinkled and grey, and their limbs became stunted. Soon they resembled the tiny shrunken mannikins that head hunters make. With a last cry they disintegrated into gobbets of flying flesh and bursts of flame.

Natla watched this performance with an open mouth and when it was over she burst out into a shocked laugh.

"What irony," she said. "The time machine didn't used to work but now it might. The time bubble used to work fine, but now it doesn't."

In response Tihocan's mechanical hand sprang out and grabbed Natla by the throat. His robotic suit straightened slowly, lifting her off her feet.

His voice was weak and distorted by electronic crackles. "Ah, my sister," he said. "How you love to laugh at the misfortunes of others."

Natla was thrashing her legs, but she didn't seem to have the wit to unleash a fire ball. Fortunately at that moment, Tihocan's time ran out. His suit fell into sections, dumping Natla on to the ground.

We ran over to help her.

"Why does everybody do that?" she croaked.

*****


I remember a great terror as we immersed ourselves inside the egg. I forced myself to open my eyes. If I was going to die I wanted to see death coming. Natla squeezed herself in amongst us, and the egg sealed shut, leaving us in stifling darkness. I tried to find Winston, but I couldn't. I imagined my flesh rotting and falling from my bones.

Then the walls of the egg became transparent and we were falling. I could see the white neuronal electricity flashing around us and then, in a second we were free. Rushing above us was the underside of the flat earth, and far below us in space was the cogs of a gigantic machine, the mechanism that turned the spheres of the heavens. I lost all awareness at that point.

*****


When I came to, there was something metallic in my mouth. I could smell countryside and feel the whisper of a breeze.

Slowly I opened my eyes. I was seated on the pedestal of my statues in the grounds of the Croft Mansion, with a shotgun barrel shoved between my teeth.

I flung the gun away and wept with joy, embracing the grass and shouting.

I ran towards to the house, and an athletic figure was sprinting towards me.

"Winston!" I shouted, leaping into his arms.

"If Madam doesn't mind," he said, after kissing me, "I'd rather be addressed as Hilary."

"Whatever you say, Mr. Man."

"And maybe when in the presence of strangers we should maintain a respectful master/servant relationship."

I hugged him tight. "We did it!" I shouted. "We really did it!"

"I should put the kettle on to celebrate," he said.

We stood for a moment looking into the setting sun. Amidst the clouds and the pink light, I could almost imagine the ghost of Natla sneaking into the City of Angels and discovering the Trumpet of the Last Judgement.

"No wonder she was reluctant to go back," I said.

"I'm sorry, Miss?"

"It doesn't matter any more," I said. "None of it does. I'm retiring."

We strolled back towards the house.

"It's time that I settled down. Who knows, maybe I could start a family."

"Maybe you could Madam."

"They say the best time to have a baby is when you're in your early twenties. I buggered it up the first time."

Winston laughed. "Indeed."

"Perhaps Jean-Ives would like to be a godparent?"

"I could try and raise him on the telephone if you have the number."

At the doorway of the Croft Mansion I took one last look at the heavens.

"Life is for the living," I said to the sky. "Fuck the dead."




The End








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.