Plastic Fantastic

 

 

 

 

 

by Tim Radley and Ostercy

 

 

 

 

“Hi there!” said the tall blonde girl, tipping her head to one side. Her voice bubbled with enthusiasm. “I’m Barbie. Pleased to meet you!”

 

I grunted and shook her hand.

 

“And this is Kenny, my boyfriend. He’ll be representing America in the competition.”

 

Ken had a square jaw, a cable-knit jumper with a diamond pattern on it and a pipe. “Howdy, Miss,” he said, in a deep manly way. “I’m right pleased to make your acquaintance.”

 

“The pleasure’s all mine, mister,” I said, with a curtsey. Ken and Barbie smiled identical smiles; they were, as I suspected, immune to irony. Both of them were over six foot tall. Obviously the Scandinavian genes that they’d inherited from their distant ancestors had gone a bit wild.

 

We were in the Elysium Alps resort, competing in the French leg of the World Snowboard Supercross championships. I was actually on the track of a treasure called L’Astre de Rael, but I enjoyed Big Air as much as the next girl and so I’d got myself entered for the UK.

 

My personal choice of board was a thin Alpine board - I wasn’t here to wow the crowd with tricks - but Ken’s board - strapped on the roof rack of a large pink VW Beetle - was a short squat Freestyle board. I couldn’t help noticing that the plastic vase embedded in the dashboard of the VW contained a large plastic daffodil. The seat covers were covered with a flowery pattern, and there was a Bagpuss sitting on the back seat, next to a heart-shaped makeup valise.

 

“Your car?” I said to Ken.

 

“Silly!” said Barbie, laughing like a peal of church bells. “Pink is for girls!”

 

“I think that Ms. Croft was joking,” said Ken, with a masculine twinkle.

 

Barbie looked momentarily astonished. “Oh my!” she said eventually, opening her large eyes wide. “That is so funny! You Brits and your humor.”

 

The Elysium Alps is a “year round” resort built by the French government. Its surface is a combination of natural and artificial snow, and in places the hard icy surface is preserved by hoses spewing liquid nitrogen vapour. Even at the height of summer under a blazing sun, the course remains. It drops over two thousand metres from beginning to end and contains obstacles such as fallen logs, cliffs, chicanes and loops. It’s extreme even by extreme standards.

 

We were at the starting gates for the first race, over looked by packed auditoria designed to look a bit like the Cherie Blair’s Mouth news centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground. I was hanging into the rails and sliding my board back and forth to prevent it freezing to the unnaturally cool surface. I could see the first riser a hundred yards away, and I was planning to attempt a move that resembled a corkscrewed Immelmann turn - the “Misty”.

 

“Good luck,” said Ken, who as in the trap next to me.

 

“You vill eat snow,” said a fat German called Jurgen, who was on the other side.

 

“Remember who won the war, mate,” I said.

 

“Jeez,” said Ken.

 

“Welcome to the Elysium Alps,” said a Japanese-sounding commentator over the tannoy. There was a huge crowd cheer. “The six contenders in this heat are Elise, Zoë, Ken, Lara, Jurgen and Hiro.”

 

Elise, a statuesque blonde from Canada, was waving at the crowd.

 

“Love me,” she shouted, “love my board.”

 

“Bimbo,” said Jurgen.

 

“Girls kick ass!” said Zoë next to her, slapping her behind. She was wearing war paint on her face and was dressed as a Riot Grrl. She was obviously from New York.

 

“I am honoured to compete against you,” said Hiro, bowing, “but your inferior races are no match for the glorious Japanese.”

 

“Did you hear what I said to Fritz here about the war?” I said to him.

 

“That is not in the best of taste, is it?” said Ken.

 

“You’re the ones that fried the bastards at Hiroshima and Nakasaki.”

 

Ken decided to stop talking to me.

 

“Five,” said the announcer. “Four, three, two ... GO!”

 

We leapt out of the starting trap and sped down the first slope. I was crouching down, bracing myself for the jump when Jurgen swerved into to me, giving me a sharp shove. I nearly fell, and in trying to regain my poise lost speed. The Misty was no longer possible so as I took off into the air, I decided to try for a Flying Squirrel Air combined with a Forward Flip. Arching my back and bending my knees I reached behind me and grabbed the edge of my board. It’s hard to tell where the ground is when you’re upside-down but I came back to the vertical just into time to land with a bone crunching bang. It had been a lunatic risk but I’d notched up some good trick points, and I was still in the pack. I was going to have to give Jurgen a good kicking at some point.

 

We whisked through a cloud of liquid nitrogen vapour and I could feel the exposed parts of my skin being covered with frost.

 

We were about half way down the slope - I’d managed to turn a close encounter with a fallen log into a 50/50 rail, and pulled off a double Rodeo at a particularly ridiculous cliff - when the terrorists struck. We must have been travelling at about 70 kilometres per hour when I noticed strange shadows on the snow. Squinting up into the sun, I caught sight of what looked like three microlites, but microlites travelling at the velocity of swooping hawks. It was just registering on me that the wing foils of the aircraft were decorated with some sort of arcane symbol, when the riders opened up with automatic weapons.

 

Bullets shattered Hiro’s board and he tumbled at high speed into a snow drift, unhurt.

 

We were approaching a series of chicanes. I realised that whilst we were going to be slowed whilst negotiating them, the flyers would have clear air. Elise swerved to a halt into a cloud of crystals and stared up at the sky, hands on hips. The flyers ignored her. Whoever they were after, it was myself, Ken, Zoë or Jurgen. I wondered if it was me.

 

Jurgen then did an impressive manoeuvre. Instead of leaning into the first turn, he went straight at it, flinging himself into the air. He and his board shot upwards into one of the microlites and the pair of them went cartwheeling into the top branches of a fir tree next to the track.

 

Ahead of me, a burst of gunfire caught Zoë’s leg. She teetered and fell, sliding on her back on the packed surface. She nearly made it, but there was a boulder in the crook of one of the chicane curves and she slammed into it. I winced - “Gotta hurt,” I thought. I knew the race organisers would be down with a stretcher.

 

That left me and Ken, and they didn’t seem interested in me.

 

I caught up with him.

 

“Who are they?” I yelled.

 

“They wish to destroy all the ambassadors to Rael,” he yelled back.

 

The synchronicity of this revelation almost made me lose my footing.

 

“Let’s take cover,” I said, indicating a wooded area by the track. I wondered where the authorities were and how long it would take them to intervene. It was true that the course was about seven thousand metres long, but there must have been people dotted all the way down it, if only working the cameras.

 

We stopped under the trees.

 

“I guess they went and chose this moment because I’m totally exposed out here, and because it’s live on TV,” said Ken. “Gee willikers. Maybe we shouldn’t have tried to fit in so much.” His face had gone sort of triangular with anxiety, as if he’d forgotten to maintain a certain pose. He waved his arms about and they looked very long, even for a man of his height.

 

I could hear a couple of crumping noises as the microlites touched down nearby.

 

“Who’s Rael?” I said.

 

“Pay no mind to that right now,” said Ken. “If they’re after me, they’re after Miss Barbie.”

 

“She’ll have seen the TV.”

 

“The editors will have cut the picture and gone to the ads at the first sign. She may not realise ...”

 

However at that moment there was a burst of machine gun fire, and Ken’s chest exploded in a rain of silvery looking blood. I rolled to cover behind a tree. I had no ideas about how to take our attackers on. I had no weapons.

 

“Ken!” I hissed, after a while. “Can you hear me?” There was no answer.

 

I waited, ears straining, limbs trembling in the bitter cold. I couldn’t hear anything and there was no sign of movement. Finally I began to get curious and I stuck out a hand, and then my head. I stepped completely out of cover, but there were no more shots. The assassins seemed to have melted away. They’d got their man, if man was the right word.

 

I ran over to where Ken lay wheezing, and cradled his head on my lap.

 

“You’re injured pretty badly,” I said to him. I wondered if the subzero temperature would slow down the onset of shock until help could reach us.

 

“You cannot help me,” he whispered. The snow around him glittered like Christmas tinsel where he’d bled on it.

 

“You’re not quite ... human, are you?”

 

“Save Barbie,” he croaked.

 

Then his face turned white and his eyes became large and dark. Suddenly there was a hissing sound and I could feel heat through my clothes. As I stumbled backwards, Ken’s body spontaneously combusted, leaving nothing but a charred depression in the snow.

 

“Fucking A,” I said, to nobody in particular.

 

 

*************************

 

 

The pink Volkswagen was still parked up at the start area: plastic daffodil in the dashboard vase, Bagpuss in exactly the same position on the backseat as when I’d last seen it.

 

It had taken me several hours to get back up top, and another hour or so on top of that to sneak past the police cordons.

 

Everything else had changed.

 

For one thing it was night now, the floodlights from the main stand casting a cold electric glare across the churned up snow. Another very noticeable difference was the bloodstain; an uneven red brown smear about six feet across, close to the VW. Not Barbie, I judged from the colour.

 

Tyre tracks criss-crossed each other like a tangle of mating snakes and broken glass glittered like a fallen handful of diamonds. I gathered that the crowds of earlier had departed in something of a panic. A gust of wind whistled mournfully as it blew across the now almost deserted scene.

 

I ducked quickly behind a concession stand for cover as a pair of uniformed French policeman walked past, one of them being half-dragged along by a massive Alsatian.

 

They hadn’t spotted me. I watched them pass, their breath forming misty trails in the cold air.

 

The Alsatian paused as it passed a section of temporary stand, the end covered with heavy canvas sheeting. It sniffed noisily for several seconds then appeared to lose interest, abruptly cocking a leg and pissing a thick stream of steaming yellow urine.

 

They moved on, disappearing from view.

 

I was about to start moving again when I saw the canvas-sheeting twitch. I froze.

 

A head popped into view. I could just make out the long blonde hair. She looked around, timid as a deer. Then, cautiously, Barbie stepped out of the concealment, dropping immediately into a crouch.

 

I started to cross towards her, afraid to call out for fear of attracting unwanted attention.

 

Somewhere behind me I heard the sound of multiple sets of footsteps, marching in unison. I ducked into the next available bit of cover, staring.

 

Not police this time by the look of them. In fact they reminded me weirdly of a set of plastic action figures – identically dressed in black, with matching fake tans and plastic looking hair. Either that or a convention of game show hosts – that was always a possibility.

 

Barbie was caught exposed with nowhere to hide. Four sets of eyes, concealed behind matching mirror shades swivelled as one towards her. I saw that they each had handguns.

 

Bugger.

 

I leapt from cover, my own pistols blazing. My aim was hardly precise, but I saw the front two go down – although there didn’t appear to be any trace of blood. “Run!” I yelled across at Barbie.

 

After a confused, wide-eyed looking blink, she did. Unfortunately the direction she chose was the most exposed possible – straight across the middle of the car park towards her VW.

 

Idiot. Bloody. Americans. Or Raelians.

 

I gritted my teeth as I kept on firing at the two remaining game show hosts – Anne and Chris I’ll call them; added motivation. They scrambled for cover in the line of concession stalls. I’m sure I got one of them in the leg, but it didn’t seem to give him much pause. Again there was no sign of blood.

 

A quick glance showed that Barbie had made it to the car.

 

A bullet whizzed past my face, missing by a matter of inches. I dove back into the cover I’d come from. More bullets flew just above my head.

 

I was aware of distant shouting and running footsteps. The French police no doubt. Then I heard the VW’s engine start. I risked sticking my head out of cover to take a look. One of the game show hosts did exactly the same.

 

I managed to shoot first. Not very accurately unfortunately. He ducked out of sight again.

 

At that moment the pink VW squealed to a halt beside me. A hail of bullets struck one side of it, raising sparks and bouncing off the windows without leaving so much as a scratch. Barbie stuck her head out of the open front window.

 

“Hi Lara. Would you like a lift?” Unfeasible cheerfulness, oblivious to any danger.

 

“Thanks.” I opened the driver side door, shoving her out of the way. “I’ll drive.”

 

 

*************************

 

“Where’s Kenny?”

 

I risked taking my gaze off the winding alpine road long enough to glance across at Barbie. That perpetual look of wide-eyed Stepford-wifey good cheer was really quite startling. Normally I’d have suspected Prozac.

 

The tyres started to slip. I yanked my attention back to my driving just in time to avoid going straight through a dry stone wall and down a rather terminal looking two-thousand foot drop. My heart thudded out a mild rebuke – pay attention dear . . .

 

Tact is not one of my strong points I’m afraid. Usually I don’t feel the need to bother with it, though sometimes I make exceptions. “He didn’t make it, I’m afraid.”

 

“Oh gee,” said Barbie. In the mirror I could see her face crumple before she buried it in her perfectly manicured hands. Her shoulders started to shake and I could hear quietly decorous sobbing.

 

Bollocks. Two things I can’t deal with: children and hysterics.

 

A tight corner took my mind off the need to utter some kind of patronising platitude: ‘there, there’, or some such. We were going so fast the VW Beetle reared up on two wheels at the bend’s apex.

 

This nazi-mobile handled much better than I’d expected. I have to confess it was quite fun.

 

Barbie was blowing her nose on a flowery handkerchief. “Aren’t you supposed to have the lights on?”

 

“Don’t you find it more fun more this way?”

 

“Oh. We’re supposed to be having fun?”

 

We swept round another bend at death-defying speed, almost totally blind.

 

“So,” I enquired. “Those . . . gentlemen who were after you and Ken. Care to tell me who – or what – they are?”

 

A frown-line marred her immaculate brow. “Let’s not talk about that just now. Please?”

 

A long section of straight road stretched ahead of us. The pair of headlights I’d spotted tailing us about ten minutes ago had been closing inexorably, despite my best efforts. Now they started to close even faster, until I was able to make out the distinctive radiator grill of a large black Mercedes.

 

Something hit the back window in a loud rat-tat-tat and I instinctively ducked lower in my seat. No need though – quite remarkable bullet proofing.

 

“I don’t supposed this car has any other neat tricks?”

 

Barbie blinked, apparently not comprehending the question.

 

“Oh, you know.” The Merc was within about ten yards now, still closing. The VW’s accelerator was flat to the floor. “Rocket launchers, machine guns, oil slick devices.” I gritted my teeth – about a hundred yards ahead the straight turned into another tight bend. “That sort of thing.”

 

“Oh - no. Nothing like that.”

 

I had to brake slightly. The Merc slammed into our rear bumper and I was thrown forward against the steering wheel. I lost control. The wheels slipped on the road, squealing. The VW veered into the length of crash barriers, sparks flying amid an ear-splitting metal on metal shrieking.

 

Thankfully the angle of impact was shallow enough that the barriers caught us, whipping us round the corner.

 

As we exited the bend I managed to regain control. The Merc was still right on our tail though. I could see the driver now – another from the same batch we’d left behind at the Elysian Alps resort. It gave us another nudge.

 

Tyres lost grip and the VW fishtailed across the road. More bullets bounced off us.

 

“I guess this is quite exciting,” said Barbie. She began to smile an uncertain smile.

 

Another bend loomed out of the darkness, much shallower this time and with only a low wall rather than a crash barrier. The wheels still hadn’t regained any proper grip, and as I vainly twisted the steering wheel we kept going straight on.

 

Crash!

 

The wall smashed apart as we impacted with it and I was thrown up so that my head banged against the roof, dazing me. We sailed serenely out into nothingness.

 

So this is what it feels like to fall to your death. The sense of wind whistling past the windows was oddly distant, and I could see nothing except rushing darkness through the windscreen.

 

“You should deploy the wings now, Lara.” The voice came from what seemed like miles away.

 

“Eh?” Was my less than together response.

 

A hand reached past me, stabbing at a button in the middle of the dashboard.

 

Suddenly the plunging descent bottomed out, my stomach lurching violently as we abruptly acquired weight again. There was a brief scraping noise from underneath the car – possibly treetops; I’m not sure I like to think about it. Then we were level again, somehow flying serenely through the night sky.

 

“Gee, Lara.” She was wide-eyed. “I am glad I met you. You’re such a daredevil.”

 

Finally I managed to prise my fingers loose from their death grip on the steering wheel and suck in a deep gulping breath of air.

 

“Yeah.” I closed my eyes, pressing myself back into the seat and suppressing the fit of shakes that were threatening. “Abso-bloody-lutely.”

 

 

*************************

 

 

I don’t know where I thought we were going, but pretty soon the VW began to climb and climb. The air inside was warm and normal, but a hand to the window confirmed that the outside temperature was dropping. The sky turned turquoise and then black. I looked at the dash board which now had bright purple indicators - the outside air temperature was minus 53 degrees.

 

“Do you want a chocolate milk?” said Barbie, flipping open the glove compartment. 

 

“Can I have vodka in it?”

 

“Criminy,” she said. “I haven’t got any alcohol in the car. That’s illegal.”

 

“I don’t think we’re going to meet too many other drivers up here.”

 

Barbie giggled. “Can I put some music on?”

 

I was really curious. “Knock yourself out,” I said.

 

At first I thought she’d tuned into a radio station. “All Hit Radio!” sang a cheesy jingle.

 

“All right, you’re listening to All Hit Radio and it’s 53 degrees at 30 minutes past the hour,” said the American DJ. “and right now on our aural request line I’ve got Mike Legerwood on the phone. Hey babe, what would you like to hear?”

 

I was going to ask Barbie to what we were listening but she had her long fingers clamped over her tiny mouth and was rocking with suppressed laughter.

 

Alien voices whispered “We are observing your earth,” and suddenly I knew what it was.

 

“Oh please,” I said. “Anything but the Carpenters.”

 

Barbie shushed me and mimed along to the Stephen Hawking-like voices. “We are observing your earth,” she intoned, “and we’d like to make a contact with you. Baby.” She started to scream with laughter and I found myself smiling.

 

“Sing along,” said Barbie. “You know you want to.”

 

At moment we left the atmosphere and entered low space orbit.

 

I joined her in a chorus of “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft,” but the words halted in my mouth when I spotted what we were heading for.

 

Remember when you were little when you first got a huge new toy for Christmas - a model Death Star, or a garage for Dinky toys, or an undersea base for Action Man? There’s a flawlessness about them, a shiny sheen. Floating in near orbit was a hemispherical object, a plastic landscape topped by a shiny plastic dome. There were  giant plastic houses, with plastic doors and windows, as well as plastic stables, outhouses and garages. There was a plastic horse jumping field, a plastic beach with plastic palm trees, backed by a plastic mountain on which was a plastic chalet. Everything was done in pastel shades, with the overwhelming leitmotif being pink.

 

Barbie broke off falsetto singing about how she wanted to be our friend to say; “That’s my home.”

 

“It’s ... so you,” I said.

 

“Isn’t it the grooviest bachelorette pad?”

 

“Um ... they do say pink is for girls, don’t they?”

 

“Right on!” said Barbie, punching the air with an elongated arm. “Girl power!”

 

“Aren’t we going to crash?”

 

“Oops.” She switched off the stereo. “Bye bye Karen. Don’t you love Karen Carpenter? So lovely and slim.”

 

“Probably even slimmer by now I should think,” I said.

 

Barbie flipped up a microphone and said “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

 

The voice of HAL from 2001 came back. “Yes, Miss Barbie. I enjoy working with people.”

 

“Isn’t that faberooni?” she whispered before turning back to the microphone. “Will you sing Daisy Daisy for me later, HAL?”

 

“My instructor Mr. Langley taught it to me at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois.”

 

“That’s so cute.”

 

“My mind is going,” said HAL, “I can feel it.” A hatch in the underside of the plastic behemoth opened and we flew up into a garage area.

 

We walked from the garage across what looked like Astroturf to the plastic front door of a residence bearing a plaque that read “Barbie’s Home From Home” in a swirly 70’s font.

 

“Ring the door bell,” said Barbie, hugging herself with anticipation. The five note alien tune from “Close Encounters” boomed out at us, rattling the plastic tiles on the roofs.

 

“You don’t know the meaning of the word cheesy, do you?”

 

“I do so!” said Barbie, opening the door. “It means something that tastes of cheese, like cheesy cookies.”

 

Of course,” I said. “Silly me.”

 

 

*************************

 

 

I decided that the quickest way to get information out of her was to play along. Besides I needed a lift home afterwards. So it was that I found myself and Barbie dressed in stripy pink pyjamas, sitting on her bed along with a fluffy E.T. doll and a fluffy A.L.F. doll, drinking sarsaparilla from a plastic Jetsons mug.

 

“Originally I chose the name Barbarella like in the film,” Barbie was saying, “but everybody shortened it to Barbie.”

 

“I had a nickname at finishing school, but it’s not repeatable,” I said.

 

“Did you have pyjama parties at your school?” said Barbie. “Gosh - I bet you had fun.”

 

“We did, but they were a bit more grown up.”

 

Barbie’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Not ... cigarettes?”

 

“That sort of thing.”

 

“They give you cancer.”

 

“But you get a lovely husky singing voice.”

 

Barbie considered this. “No. I still think it’s irresponsible.”

 

“Has Robbie the Robot finished synthesising that hundred percent ethanol for us yet?”

 

“Oops,” said Barbie. “I forgot about that. I’m getting him to synthesise a lovely diamond tiara for you instead. You’d prefer that to boring old alcohol, wouldn’t you?”

 

“Almost certainly,” I said.

 

Even seated on the bed, she still towered above me. She remind me of a gawky and gauche younger sister. She got me to brush her hair and I had to stand in order to manage it. Her hair, like everything else, felt as if it was made of plastic.

 

“So where are you from, originally?” I said.

 

“People round here call our planet Rael,” she said, “and they call us the Raelians or the Elohim. Have you heard of us?”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“They call people like you, with alien blood in you, the Nephilim.”

 

I stopped brushing. “I haven’t got alien blood in me,” I said.

 

“Silly!” said Barbie. “Most humans have alien blood in them. Inherited from long ago.”

 

“O.K.,” I said, carefully. “So - explain something else to me. Ken told me that you guys were ‘ambassadors to Rael’, not ‘ambassadors from Rael’.” There was a moment’s silence. “Barbie?”

 

When I looked at her face, her lips were quivering and tears were rolling down her cheeks.

 

“Sorry,” I said. “That was tactless.”

 

“I don’t mind,” said Barbie, in a small voice.

 

I tried to think of what to say. “Ken and you were ... close?”

 

“He was my boyfriend.”

 

I decided that I didn’t want to explore the implications of that.

 

“So -who were those people?” I asked as gently as I could. “The ones with the sunglasses and the microlites?”

 

“They were members of the Cult of Rael,” said Barbie, blowing her nose on a tissue. “I don’t understand it. Kenny and I are always so nice to people. Why do people have to be so horrible? It’s not fair. Why can’t we all just get along?”

 

She dissolved into a fresh flood of tears.

 

 

*************************

 

 

Later, as I was toasting marshmallows over a plastic fire with plastic flames, Barbie gave me a slide show. She was dressed in an air hostess uniform, and was doing arm movements reminiscent of the safety lecture one gets before flights.

 

“Ahem,” she said, with a dimply smile. “As well as the planetary system called Rael and its inhabitants, the Raelians, there is also a human being called Rael. His followers are known as the Cult of Rael. This has become so confusing that we, the Raelians, have reverted to our older name of the Elohim. Originally this man was a French racing drivers. Then, in the early 70’s, a rogue member of the Elohim calling himself Yahweh, contrived to appear in a vision to this Frenchman, and to fill his head with subversive nonsense concerning our aims. This is not the first time that this had happened. Other examples include the Russian monk, Rasputin, and the British writer, H.G.Wells. The latter - disillusioned with our aims - later parodied the Elohim as the Eloi in his novel the Time Machine. More recently we had to engineer the apprehension of an individual known as Sophia Leigh, who had warped the Elohim philosophy to include bizarre medical experiments, and who had obtained some of our more dangerous technology ...”

 

I choked on my marshmallow.

 

“What did you just say?”

 

“Which bit?”

 

“Did you just say Sophia Leigh?”

 

“Yes,” said Barbie. A smile was creeping across her face.

 

“I killed her in London whilst fighting over a piece of meteorite.”

 

“You didn’t kill her, you silly billy,” said Barbie. “We were watching the whole thing,  and we beamed her out at the last minute.”

 

I realised that my mouth was hanging open.

 

“Beamed her out?”

 

“You know.” Barbie made a warbling noise and waggled her fingers. “Like in Star Trek. Now she’s my house guest until the Elohim decide what to do with her.”

 

“She’s here?”

 

Barbie led me over to a brightly coloured console with childlike buttons and dials on it. A screen lit up.

 

I could see an individual seated at a doll’s house table, her head cradled on her hands. As the picture came on, there must have been some sign, for she looked straight up at the camera.

 

“Good morning, Sophia.”

 

“What do you want?”

 

“I’ve got an old buddy of yours here with me.”

 

“How fucking marvellous,” said Sophia in a weary upper class tone. “Who is it? Winnie the fucking Pooh?”

 

“I’m afraid that I’m going to have to switch the niceness filter on again, Sophia,” said Barbie, reprovingly. “Your language is filthy.” She pressed a button.

 

Sophia picked up her chair and started battering the camera. “You beeping little beep. Get your beeping beep down here and I’ll beep the living beep out of your mangy beeping beeper-beeping little beep of a beep, you massively irritating beep.” Superimposed over her voice was another, gentle computer voice which said - slightly out of sync - “You beautiful little person. Get your wonderful self down here and I’ll hug the living daylights out of your heart-warming, mother-loving little gem of a bod, you incredibly lovely alien space goddess.”

 

Sophia gave up and threw herself on a bed whose headpiece featured a large plastic heart surrounded by winged teddy bears.

 

“Can I talk to her?” I said.

 

“Please,” said Barbie. “She’s such a grouch when she talks to me.”

 

“Sophia?” I said into the microphone.

 

Sophia was still breathing heavily and there were tears in her eyes, but she sat up. “Who’s that?”

 

“Lara Croft,” I said.

 

Sophia looked stunned at first. Then, however, she began to gabble. “Thank God you’re here, Lara. Please - you’ve got to get me out of this place. You’ve seen what they’re like - stark raving mad. We have to get away and muster a defence before it’s too late ...”

 

Barbie giggled. “What a party pooper,” she said.

 

 

*************************

 

 

 

I listened to the sound of Barbie’s breathing, trying to guess whether she really was asleep. Her being an alien made it a bit difficult to tell to be honest. I mean does she actually need to sleep, or does she just pretend to make herself appear more human?

 

Eventually I decided that since deception wasn’t nice she probably wasn’t just faking, so I’d risk it.

 

I slipped out of bed, dressed in the ghastly pink-striped pyjamas Barbie had so thoughtfully provided, the sleeves and legs rolled up to fit my shorter limbs. I crept as quietly as I could to the door. She gave no sign of stirring.

 

My head was pounding.

 

Part of it was trying to get my thoughts round what was going on with the Cult of Rael, the Elohim, Sophia Leigh and all that crap. Mostly though, it was the effort of sustaining smiling, happy politeness for so long. There’d come a point where I’d experienced a nagging urge to start screaming in an effort to wake myself up. If I’d started I don’t think I would have been able to make myself stop.

 

I felt a pang of pity for Sophia. Hell was worse than ever I’d imagined it would be.

 

“Lara Croft. Where exactly are you going?”

 

Bugger.

 

“Hello HAL,” I said cautiously, forcing a smile that made my face ache. “Just taking a midnight stroll. It’s something I often do at home when I can’t sleep.”

 

“If you can’t sleep Lara, I can provide you with a drink that will remedy that.”

 

“Does it have alcohol in it? If it does you’ve made yourself a sale.”

 

There was a hint of disapproval in its response. “Barbie doesn’t allow alcohol here. It is a dangerous substance that promotes naughty and irresponsible behaviour.”

 

More chance of fun in a convent. “Well in that case HAL I’ll stick to the walk I think. Thanks all the same mate.”

 

There was a pause. I started to pad barefoot across the deep pile carpet – also in pink of course. In the dim light the bulk of a huge stuffed teddy bear sat propped against a wall. It appeared oddly sinister and I had a brief paranoid feeling that it was watching me.

 

“I’ll have to wake Barbie and inform her of your actions, Lara.” HAL again, apparently having thought things over.

 

I stopped, letting my breath out in a hiss. “Listen you overbearing sack of mouldering circuitry, you do that and I’ll ask her to make you to sing Daisy, Daisy again.”

 

HAL was silent. I allowed myself a slight smirk. “So we have a deal then?”

 

There was no reply. I took that as an affirmative. I continued onwards, through the wall-to-wall chintz and cheese and cheery brightness. All in all it reminded me of something dredged up from the deepest, darkest pits of Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen’s subconscious.

 

Barbie was a trusting sort and didn’t seem capable of actually lying. I quickly reached the door that she’d indicated led to Sophia Leigh’s ‘guest quarters’ and started to turn the handle.

 

“I’m sorry Lara. I can’t allow you to do that.”

 

 

*************************

 

 

I jumped. “Bloody hell, HAL. You’ll give someone a heart attack.”

 

“Step back from the door please Lara.”

 

I sighed, releasing my grip on the door handle. “All right then. I think we need to talk.”

 

It considered. “I don’t think we have anything to discuss Lara. Return to your bed and go to sleep, or I shall be forced to take action.”

 

Bloody school ma’am. “You know what happened to Ken, don’t you HAL?” I was speaking into thin air. Given my current circumstances it didn’t seem particularly unusual.

 

“I know what you told Barbie.”

 

Apparently my host had gone a little too far in ensuring the authenticity of her creation. “Listen, I promised Ken I’d make sure Barbie was safe. In order to do that I need to know what’s going on – from someone with a rather more earthbound perspective than your er . . . Mistress. I need to talk to Sophia.”

 

“I think you’re trying to trick me Lara.”

 

I folded my arms. The fact that I wasn’t sure which direction I should be looking probably rather spoilt the effect I was aiming for. “So what is it you think I am then? A spy from the Cult of Rael? That I really killed Ken myself and infiltrated toy town here to do the same to Barbie? Heuristic Algorithm is it? Don’t make me laugh. Artificial Idiocy more like.”

 

There was no response. I tried the door handle again. It turned but the door didn’t budge. Great. “HAL?”

 

Finally there was a click and the door swung inwards.

 

“I’ll be watching you Lara.”

 

“Whatever turns you on dear.”

 

I advanced cautiously. Sophia didn’t just have the one room to herself but a whole suite, all of it decked out with pretty hearts and flowers and fluffy-wuffy stuffed toys.

 

Behind me there was a quiet click as the door swung shut.

 

It occurred to me at that point that I might have just put myself in an incredibly stupid position. “HAL . . .” I started.

 

There was a soft stealthy sound – a footstep, right behind me. I managed to catch the arm that came around my throat, twisting instinctively and pulling its owner over my hip, sending them crashing to the floor in front of me.

 

“Sophia. Is that any way to greet an old . . .”

 

It wasn’t her. Instead I found myself staring down at what looked to be the same giant teddy bear that I’d passed earlier.

 

I gaped at it. Its glass-bead eyes glittered blankly. One of its paws lashed out, grabbing hold of my ankle. As I tried to yank back metal claws burst through the plush fur covering amid little puffs of white stuffing.

 

They sliced through the leg of my pyjamas. I yelped as I felt them cutting into my ankle, stumbling over backwards and ending up sprawled on my arse. My other foot lashed out, catching it in the face and knocking it head-over-heels across the room.

 

I scrambled backwards on my hands, the sound of my breathing ragged in my ears. The teddy bear sprang to its feet, alarmingly fast and agile. More gleaming metal claws burst from its other paw. I forced myself upright, using the wall as a prop. My blood was leaving stains on the carpet.

 

The nearest available object was a floor lamp with a shade covered in cute little baby-pink hearts. I grabbed it in both hands, using it like a spear in an effort to hold the teddy bear off.

 

It came on in a rush, savaging the lampshade with the ferocity of a starved rottweiler, tearing it to tatters. A swipe from its paw knocked the lamp pole to one side, the lightbulb shattering against the wall, leaving ragged teeth of broken glass.

 

I lunged at it, catching it in the head. The ragged glass teeth tore one of its eyes off and left a ragged gash that spewed stuffing. Beneath I could see metal, hard and gleaming.

 

It didn’t seem overly impaired by the injury.

 

We circled each other like gladiators in a fluffy pink pit. The scar transformed the teddy bear’s expression from cutesy-cuddliness to contemptuous Bond-villain sneer.

 

“HAL, you moron ...,” I said.

 

The teddy bear feinted a lunge. I danced back, swiping at its head and missing.

 

“I’m sorry Lara, but I have to do this. I know all about you, and I don’t think you have Barbie’s best interests at heart.”

 

“Lara. Is that . . ?”

 

The voice distracted me. I glanced across and saw Sophia Leigh standing in the doorway leading to her bedroom. She looked curiously like a little girl as she stood there in a flowery nightgown, dark circles under her eyes, her fingernails gnawed ragged.

 

The teddy bear stamped down on the lamp, ripping it from my grasp. Before I could respond it was swarming all over me, knocking me onto my back and raking with its claws.

 

“Don’t just stand there gawping Sophia.” My breath came in thin gasps. “Bloody well help me.” I tried to kick and punch and tear at it, but it was like trying to fight off a large blancmange. Its claws tore at my forearms as I tried to protect my face and upper body, blood flying.

 

The bear was winning. My arms were a blazing mass of white-hot pain. Its weight was slowly crushing the breath out of my lungs and the claws got closer to more vital areas.

 

“Sophia!”

 

Suddenly the weight on top me doubled, blasting the remaining breath from my body. I saw a slim arm wrap around the teddy bear’s head, one of Sophia’s hand gripping the tear down its face and pulling.

 

Fabric tore and stuffing spilled. The bear kept on clawing. Now I thought I could see a blazing red eye glaring down at me out of a grinning metal skull. I wasn’t sure though. The weight on top of me was such that I couldn’t suck any more air into my lungs and my vision was fading to a dull red, my ears filling with a roaring sound.

 

“HAL, what on earth is going on here?”

 

The teddy bear’s claws stopped, an inch away from my throat. Barbie stood in the doorway, arms folded, foot tapping.

 

The weight on top of me diminished suddenly and I let out a long gasping breath.

 

 

*************************

 

 

“Well, isn’t this nice.” I was feeling rather faint. The room swayed from side to side as I stood up.

 

Sophia was crouching, her expression animalistic. She looked ready to pounce, and I half-expected her to start snarling and frothing at the mouth. She wasn’t looking at me though.

 

Barbie just appeared peeved – in her you couldn’t really call it anger. Her face had developed a slight pout.. “Oh HAL, you silly machine. What have you done?”

 

She went over to a panel on the wall and then something strange happened. I wasn’t sure right away that I wasn’t just hallucinating it. Pink disco lighting began to strobe in pretty patterns on the wall and I could here the music of Burt Bacharach playing.

 

“I’m very sorry about HAL,” said Barbie. “I guess I gave him too much personality. I guess he ...” She stopped and cocked her head to one side as if listening for something.

 

At that moment, over the Burt Bacharach, there was a noise that might have been gunfire. It was followed by a dull crump. That was definitely an explosion.

 

“Oh dear,” she said, looking at the ceiling. “That’ll probably be the Cult of Rael trying to finish me off.”

 

“Look,” said Sophia, “you know su casa es mi casa and all that but it hardly seems fair, I mean we ought to get out there with a white flag or something and negotiate ...”

 

“I really don’t think they’ll listen, Sophia.”

 

I looked from one of them to the other as another explosion rang out. “Shall we get out of here then?” I asked. I forced a smile for Barbie’s benefit. “It’ll be fun, don’t you think? – the three of us together. Just like Charlie’s Angels.”

 

*************************

 

 

High in the sky above Barbie’s satellite was a shiny metallic object resembling two counter-rotating hubcaps. A metal tulip protruding from its base was firing a deathray through the dome and into the plastic buildings. There was a plastic horse galloping through the pasture, its shiny brown skin flecked with condensation. The death ray struck, and the horse burst into flames, molten globules setting fire to the grass around its hoofs. It whinnied, rearing up on its hind legs.

 

“My horse!” said Barbie, aghast.

 

“Bugger the horse,” said Sophia. “Get us out of here before the whole place burns down.”

 

“You really are a horrid woman.”

 

“The air must be escaping into space,” I said. “It’ll extinguish any flames to some extent, but it will extinguish us as well unless you get us to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

 

“Follow me,” said Barbie.

 

Sophia held me back by my wrist. “Look I know we’ve had some differences in the past,” she said, “but it really wasn’t anything personal and I want you to know that I don’t bear you any malice despite the fact that you broke into my building and tried to steal top secret stuff but - you know - I understand, all’s fair in love and war and all that, and sometimes you can’t make a omelette without, you know, the eggs problem and so on and I know you’re a business woman yourself - straight down to business, business-like - and no doubt you’ve had to do expedient things from time to time in the past which on reflection you have regretted like, maybe, trying to electrocute me, but I don’t bear any grudges and I want us to be pals and I won’t forget the way you rescued me today because who knows - like Bogart and that French policemen - maybe this is the start of a beautiful friendship Louie, although you probably haven’t seen Casablanca so you’ve no idea what I’m talking about but never mind it’s the thought that counts and sometimes one can communicate without using words and so - thanks, and I owe you a drink and maybe we could meet up and do lunch at one of those places off Oxford Street, or maybe not, too down market - I keep forgetting you’re minor royalty - but they have some pretty good places near the City these days, not too shabby and just expensive enough to be sensible.”

 

“Sophia,” I said. “It’s O.K. Let’s get out of here, shall we?”

 

“Right,” said Sophia. “God I need a fag.”

 

The VW dropped out of the garage like a stone, and Sophia screamed.

 

Barbie switched on her microphone and we swept towards the hubcap spacecraft.

 

“Go away!” she said, even though they couldn’t hear us in space. “I’m really angry now and I’ll call the police.”

 

Sophia and I shot a glance at each other. “The police?” she mouthed.

 

The hubcap ship shot at us, and a chunk was burned out of the bonnet.

 

“My paintwork,” shouted Barbie. She appeared to be furious. She flicked on the headlights and a pulsing green shockwave hit the hubcap, which stopped spinning. There was no more death rays from it, and it began fall slowly back towards the atmosphere.

 

“Where on earth did they get that spacecraft?” I said after we had been watching it for a while. “I thought this lot were human?”

 

“We gave it to them,” said Barbie. “Such ingratitude.”

 

“I probably shouldn’t say it but what the hell - it looks just like a flying saucer from one of those 50’s films or something blurry over Roswell, and that’s just an amazing coincidence,” said Sophia, dabbing her face with a tissue.

 

“Of course it isn’t a coincidence,” said Barbie. “We wanted to present ourselves as friendly aliens so that you wouldn’t be scared. We monitored your transmissions so that we could see what you thought we should look like, and modelled ourselves accordingly. We wanted everything about ourselves to be comforting.”

 

“Oh I see and may I say what a brilliant piece of marketing what with all the kitsch sci-fi stuff and toys and all that bright optimistic Trekkie decor.”

 

“I may be blonde and an alien,” said Barbie, “but I’m not stupid.”

 

 

 

*************************

 

 

And so I invited them to the Croft Mansion.

 

“You’ve had me for a stay over,” I said to Barbie, “and so now it’s my turn.”

 

“Really?” said Barbie, tears appearing in her eyes. “That’s so sweet.”

 

“And you,” I whispered to Sophia. “Any funny business and I’ll be terminating your contract early without an ongoing health plan.”

 

“You’re the boss,” said Sophia, with a manly thumbs up. “Do you have broadband? I have about a decade of stock news to catch up on. And I could do with a facial.”

 

As we stepped out of the car, I knelt and kissed the gravel. Sophia hesitated, and then copied me, watching me out of the corner of her eye to see my reaction.

 

“Sophia - stop ass-licking,” I said.

 

“Sorry,” said Sophia. “Just trying to get with the programme.”

 

The door opened and there was Winston.

 

“This is Winston, my man,” I said, clapping him on the shoulder.

 

“Good afternoon, Miss,” said Winston. “Good trip?”

 

“Interesting,” I said. “This is Barbie and this is Sophia Leigh. Make them comfortable and keep them away from the gun cabinet. I’m going for a swim.”

 

“Very good, Madam.”

 

An hour later, I had recovered my sang froid. I wandered into the living room with a lit Montechristo in one hand and a large bulb of brandy in the other.

 

“You can’t beat a good cigar before breakfast,” I said, sauntering over to the sideboard where Winston had laid out all the necessities for breakfast. “Are these our eggs and our bacon?”

 

“Yes Madam,” said Winston. “The staff will be interested to know if you find them different.”

 

We were trying out some organic farming. I’d been reliably informed that a full English from organic animals tasted better.

 

Barbie and Sophia had both borrowed clothes. Sophia had found one of my 1980’s suits from when I was going through one of my Mrs. Thatcher phases - you could balance a pint on the shoulder pads. As for Barbie ...

 

“What is that garment?” I said.

 

“It’s a Laura Ashley dress, Miss.”

 

“Do I wear Laura Ashley dresses?”

 

“No, Madam,” said Winston. “I bought it in case you ever felt like getting in touch with your feminine side.”

 

“I’m very in touch with my feminine side thank you, Winston. If I ever want to get in touch with my simpering girlie side, I’ll let you know.

 

“But it’s lovely,” said Barbie, doing a twirl. The dress looked like a miniskirt on her, and she wasn’t wearing any knickers. She appeared to have no pubic hair - in fact, I wasn’t sure if she possessed labia.

 

“It’s yours to keep forever,” I said. “Maybe Winston can find you some flowery undergarments to go with it.”

 

“Very good, Madam,” said Winston, and beat a hasty retreat.

 

“Not that I own any flowery undergarments,” I said to Sophia. “But maybe Winston does.”

 

Sophia giggled in a nervous way.

 

The eggs and bacon were good, especially the eggs. It’s a long time since I’ve seen an egg yolk that’s a proper shade of yellow. The bacon had been grilled but it hadn’t shrunk and become soaking wet like conventional bacon. Maybe organic farming, despite being a financial loss, was something we could persevere with.

 

“You can’t beat baked beans on toast,” I said, shovelling the last bit into my mouth.

 

“I used to spend most of my life in the gym and I’d only have to look at a chocolate, and I’m turn into a spotty blob,” said Sophia.

 

“The secret to dieting is boundless self confidence,” I said. “That and being in fear for your life on a regular basis.”

 

“You don’t even have a smoker’s cough.”

 

“Smoker’s coughs are for wimps,” I said, relighting my cigar.

 

“Smoking can shorten your life by years,” said Sophia.

 

“So can being shot or set on fire,” I said, “Besides if life is short, you might as well have fun.”

 

“That’s a circular argument.”

 

“May I offer you a cigarette? They’re over there on the sideboard.”

 

Sophia flushed as if I’d made an indecent suggestion. “Oh yes please,” she gasped.

 

Barbie said nothing. She batted her eyelids and smiled. Apparently, despite her Californian looks, she lacked Californian preachiness.

 

I told them to entertain themselves. Barbie decided to try out a real horse, whilst Sophia sat watching several satellite news channels at once whilst reading Cosmo. I went to my study to check out Rael on the internet.

 

The first thing that I noticed about the “rael.org” homepage was the familiar mishmash of misquoted historical sources, including from the Bible, and barely understood passages about modern science, liberally dotted with buzz-phrases such as “Dolly the Sheep” and “President Clinton”. It seemed to me that at the beginning in the seventies, the Rael Organisation had mainly been involved with some sort of hippy idea of world peace. To quote; "Once a year, on a mountain near the residence, gather together people from all over the world who have heard about us and wish us to come. Have the largest number of people possible, and have them think intensely about us and hope for our coming. When there are enough and when they wish for our coming intensely enough without any religious mysticism, as a responsible people respecting their creators, then we will come openly and give you our scientific knowledge as our heritage to all peoples of the Earth. If warlike temperaments are reduced to total powerlessness in the whole world, then this will happen. If the love of life and humanity for us, and therefore for itself, is strong enough, yes we will come openly." I could see Barbie agreeing with that general philosophy.

 

Then - at some time in the 1990’s - the prospect of test-tube babies and the Human Genome Project seemed to have overheated Raelian brains, and suddenly they were beginning to sound like Nazi eugenicists. Presumably this was the point at which the Elohim had realised that something had gone awry, and started sending ambassadors. They’d given the Rael Organisation a small space craft to allow them to visit the Elohim Embassy in orbit.  However it seemed the Rael Organisation had taken the criticism badly, and now the knives were out.

 

Of more interest to me was the star-like symbol on the Rael front page - a six pointed star whose lines curved in to meet at a central point - L’Astre De Rael. Prior to my involvement with Barbie I’d come across this artefact, which naturally had a long and bizarre history.

 

Originally a sacred and very secret relic of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran, it had been  embedded in the top of a pillar of the Temple of Zarathrustra in Yazd where it had burnt with an eternal flame, a flame that had burnt ever since 550 BC, when the religion had been founded in Masar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. At some time during that period the Star had moved to Iran, and then, in 1979, it had left Iran with the departing Shah of Iran. The new Islamic government had been glad to see it go. The Shah, a secret Zoroastrian, had wandered from country to country and whilst he was in Paris the Star had been stolen. He died in Egypt a short time later, some say of a broken heart.

 

The Star was handed around the black market for a while, and my information was that it had fallen into the hands of the Rael Organisation. Hence my holiday in France, but I hadn’t taken into account the Elohim.

 

When I returned, they were watching a South Park episode called “Cartman gets an anal probe.”

 

Barbie was clapping her hands in delight. “Look,” she said, pointing at the Grays, “we’re in this cartoon. We’ve come to make contact with cows instead of humans. It’s so funny and the cows are so-o cute.”

 

“I don’t think I ever seen anything so disgusting,” said Sophia. “How anybody can call this comedy I don’t know.”

 

“Maybe you should get out more,” I said.

 

“I feel a bit sorry for that boy with a satellite dish coming out of his bottom,” said Barbie. “We wouldn’t do that.”

 

“It’s just a story,” I said. I rang the bell for Winston. “Get packed - we’re moving out. I think it’s time we all paid a visit to Rael.”

 

 

*************************

 

 

I have to get one of these cars. So much easier than arsing around with airports and customs. Although it is vaguely ironic to think that we’ve probably been responsible for a spate of UFO sightings, and indirectly, a whole new influx of people ready to accept the Cult of Rael’s message.

 

Rael’s residence resembled a large white plastic donut, half buried in the alpine snow. An earthbound spacestation that reminded me of a prop rejected from a low-budget 50’s sci-fi for being too tacky. We manage to neatly avoid the perimeter fencing and security – somewhat at odds with the neo-hippie message of peace and love I can’t help but think – by the simple measure of flying straight over them.

 

Parking proved to be slightly harder than it looks, especially on the snow. Still, I’m sure that a quick trip to the panel-beaters will have those two lexuses – or is it lexi? – looking almost as good as new. And that stand of shrubbery was in just the right place to cushion our impact with the wall.

 

“There we go. Perfect landing,” I said once I’d managed to claw the slowly deflating airbag out of my face.

 

I ignored the reproving glare Sophia directed my way. Anyway, it was quickly replaced by a startled yelp as the cigarette that had fallen onto her lap began to burn through her skirt.

 

“That sign says this space is reserved,” Barbie indicated something barely visible beneath the front of the car as we got out.

 

“Does it?” I looked around. So far no one was shouting out in alarm, and homogenous looking heavies in suits were notable only by their absence. “Well I promise I won’t tell anybody if you don’t.”

 

Behind me I heard Sophia mutter something under her breath that featured the word ‘simpering’ in it.

 

Unholstering the .50 calibre Desert Eagle I’d chosen for the occasion, I indicated the front doors. “Shall we, ladies?”

 

*************************

 

 

I found myself wondering what the French equivalent of a muesli-eating Guardian reader was. Something like the man in front of me I’d guess. At least he hadn’t fainted yet, although the forced smile-cum-grimace and the patina of sweat slicking his pallid looking skin made me think that was still a distinct possibility.

 

“Look,” I thrust the gun a little closer to his face. “We’re not going to disappear if you close your eyes and tell yourself it’s just a dream. Are you going to help us or not?”

 

“Guns are not the answer,” he bleated weakly, as if reading from an auto-cue that had ceased to have any relevance to the current situation.

 

“That rather depends on what the question is, I’ve always found.” I tilted my head slightly to one side and smiled. “Now back to the matter in hand. You were about to take us to see Mr. Rael I believe.”

 

He just stood there with a pathetic, pleading look on his face that made me feel like I was kicking a puppy dog. Still, never did like puppies much. They make a horrible mess of the carpet for one thing.

 

“Monsieur Rael?” he said, looking somewhat at a loss. “Ce n’est pas possible.”

 

“Maybe - and it’s only a suggestion you should - threaten to shoot him,” whispered  Sophia

 

I’d noticed during the trip here that she’d started to regain a modicum of her former self-confidence, and had tempered the efforts to ingratiate herself with me a fraction. It was a relief to be honest, and I think I liked her better this way. The last thing I wanted right now was Sophia Leigh imprinted on me like a lost little chick looking for its mother.

 

“You shall do no such thing.” Barbie stepped abruptly between us, cutting off my shot. “Shame on you two. You’re scaring the poor man.” I saw her gently pat him on the cheek. “Ignore them. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

 

Sophia rolled her eyes.

 

Barbie seemed to be making more headway than I had though. The man was gaping at her and suddenly he dropped to his knees in front of her. “Oh ‘onoured one. Can it be? Can it really be? I am not worthy . . .” He was babbling, and abruptly cut himself off entirely, aiming kisses in the general direction of Barbie’s feet.

 

She reached down and patted the man’s head, like you would the family pet. “That’s very nice of you. You don’t have to do that. Honestly.”

 

“But Ambassador. You are really spoiling us with this unexpected visit.”

 

“Um ... and you’re getting saliva all over my Kickers.”

 

The man began to polish the toes of Barbie’s shoes but she restrained him. He looked up at her with an expression of fawning adulation. “What would you ‘ave of me, ma déesse?” Barbie covered a smile with her hand.

 

“Rael,” I prompted Barbie with an urgent whisper, not entirely trusting her to stick to our agenda.

 

She made an imperious looking gesture. “We have come to commune with Rael. Please take us to him.”

 

The man bowed his head. “Naturellement, Ambassador.”

 

 

*************************

 

 

Rael – the ex-racing driver formerly known as Claude Vorilhon – looked like a cross between Jesus Christ and a beardy refugee from seventies Open University programming.

 

At our entrance he looked away from the expansive vista of snow-covered mountainside and turned to face us. His expression bore the calm serenity I’ve come – from unpleasant experience – to associate with the dangerously psychotic.

 

His gaze swept straight past me and Sophia to fix on Barbie. The serenity briefly fractured, and I caught a glimpse what might have been fear. It was quickly smoothed over. “I thought you would ‘ave shown enough sense to stay away from ‘ere after what you ’ave done.”

 

“What she’s done?” I asked. I noticed that he didn’t seem overly surprised by our intrusion.

 

He ignored me completely. “We trusted you to guide us . . .” Rael’s voice broke up. “And you betrayed that trust. Betrayed us all.” Emotion hardened into righteous anger. It smelt like a carefully prepared speech.

 

“You killed Kenny!” Barbie stood with her hands on hips, returning the anger two-fold. “You ... basset.”

 

“What is this ‘basset’?”

 

“It’s a sort of dog,” I said.

 

Rael shrugged this aside. “I killed Kenny as I should kill you. Although against my better judgement I will allow you to leave, on condition that you return to your ‘ome planet, to inform your kind that we will no longer tolerate their lies and interference, and never return.” Yep. Definitely a prepared speech.

 

I cleared my throat. “‘Threats of violence must be punished as severely as the act itself, because they lead to belief that the individual who makes the threat thinks his point of view can triumph through violence,’” I said. “I’m guessing it must have been some other guy called Rael who said that – although you do sound pompous enough I suppose.”

 

He did deign to look at me this time, more out of irritation than anything else. “And who might you be?”

 

“You don’t recognise me? I’m crushed.”

 

“Well my dear, whoever you are, you are indeed correct. Violence against your fellow man can never be justified for any reason, and I would never dream of sanctioning it. ‘Owever, when we are talking about an external threat and the future of our species as an ‘ole . . . Then, regrettably, you ‘ave to make exceptions.” He looked away again.

 

“Claude, what has happened to you? I thought you were such a nice boy when we first met,” said Barbie.

 

“Don’t call me that,” he said.”My name is Rael ...” and he and Barbie started to bicker.

 

I stopped listening. Once you’ve heard one messiah, you’ve heard them all.  I noticed that Sophia had wandered off and was looking at a console that bore an uncanny resemblance to something you’d find in the background of a Gerry Anderson series. Lots of wood-textured vinyl and chrome. Thunderbird-tastic.

 

“Now I realise that it’s sometimes unwise to leap to snap judgements and as you know I’m not a judgemental person, or at least that’s what my analyst says - mind you, she’s completely hopeless,” whispered Sophia, “but these people, aliens, whatever - can we really trust them?”

 

I just grunted. “Found a new toy?” The banks of switches were labelled in a script I was fairly sure wasn’t human.

 

“Yes I suppose so ...” her voice dropped to sotto voce ... “so what’s our angle here then?”

 

“Angle?”

 

“Oh come on Lara, I know you, or I’m pretty sure I know you being a good judge of character and all that, and I’m guessing that you’re not here out of the goodness of your heart or a desire to help the plastic muppet there. There’s something in it for you, for us, isn’t there?”

 

“You know me? One petty squabble over a chunk of blue rock hardly constitutes a close personal relationship.” I wasn’t about to tell her about L’Astre.

 

“It’s okay Lara because let’s face it, we’re a team - like Charlie’s Angels, like you said, although bags I not be Drew Barrymore - very short fat legs - but that’s not the point and the point is that your secret’s safe with me.” She favoured me with a conspiratorial wink.

 

“Don’t touch that!” Rael broke off from his argument with Barbie as Sophia trailed a finger absently along a row of switches.

 

“This one you mean?” I flicked a switch at random. There was a brief whirring noise, then music started to play. Wagner. Ride of the Valkyries. Not entirely the result I’d expected. “Hmm. Interesting choice there. Rather more . . . martial than I’d anticipated. Or was it this one you referring to?” I tried a second switch.

 

This time there was a gurgling noise. A moment later a cubbyhole popped open, dispensing a plastic cup of steaming hot liquid. Given the Raelian attitude to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and anything else that might possibly result in fun, it probably wasn’t coffee. More likely something insipid with too many herbs in.

 

I came to the conclusion that I was unlikely to stumble across a self-destruct mechanism, detailed plans for world domination, or the controls to a clone manufacturing system. In any case Rael came up behind me and grabbed hold of my wrist before I could try a third switch.

 

“So - I know you now,” said Rael. I don’t know whether he’d recognised me on his own, or Barbie had simply told him who I was. “You are Lara Croft.”

 

“Let go of me,” I said. Surprisingly he did. The radiant faux-messiah calm had got lost somewhere and now he just looked old and bewildered.

 

“So what do you want? With me – and ... that thing?” He nodded to indicate Barbie.

 

“Well, firstly I’d like you to call your dogs off. Then maybe you could stop whatever you’ve been doing to get on the wrong side of the Elohim and go back to being a harmless eccentric.”

 

He laughed. It was the sort of laugh that you’d normally associate with someone who shouldn’t be trusted around sharp objects. “You ‘ave no idea, do you? She ’as tricked you.” His finger wavered as he pointed at Barbie and his voice rose in pitch. “She is leading you astray.”

 

I lifted an eyebrow. “Oh yes?”

 

“Do you know about the Elohim? Do you? I mean really?” He squinted at me suspiciously.

 

“I know what I read in your literature,” I said cautiously. Which to be honest seemed a bit batty.

 

“Then you know nothing,” said Rael. “They ‘ave deceived me. They ‘ave deceived us all. They are not ‘ere to guide us. They are ‘ere to hold us back and make sure we never rise to challenge them . . .”

 

“Guys, guys!” said Sophia. “Is this all really necessary? Mr. Rael - why don’t you invite us to stay - I mean, judging from the man who announced us, the people here are unlikely to let you harm Barbie, and I realise that you two have issues but maybe I can offer myself as a conciliator, after all I am a people person, a man manager and all that and ... well, you know, and Lara and I would be proud to be your guests if you were to invite us, no pressure, but at least we’ll be able to keep an eye on each other ...”

 

“You’re hoping to use people skills on an alien and a nutter?” I said.

 

“I am not a nutter,” said Rael in a very French accent.

 

“I think it’s a lovely idea,” said Barbie. “You see - you can be nice if you try, Sophia.”

 

“Well, yes, thanks - now I’m embarrassed,” said Sophia.

 

 

*************************

 

 

So we were guests. Rael went off “to pray” which could roughly be translated as “to sulk”, and in the meantime the human members of his operation broke out the Ferrero Rocher in our honour. There was no sign of the strange sunglasses-wearing beings that had assaulted Ken on the slopes on the Elysium Alps.

 

Most people aren’t used to being waited on hand and foot, but for Sophia and I , it was old hat. Even Barbie wasn’t remotely phased, which did make me wonder how she saw herself in relation to the human race.

 

Barbie was given her own room, whilst Sophia and I had to share. There was still no sign of Rael.  I fell asleep listening to Sophia going on about electric toothbrushes and dental floss. Which was odd ... because I had no intention of sleeping.

 

When I awoke in my Ikea-esque bed, it was dark and I was disorientated. As I reached for the bedside light, I realise that my skin was burning. I went into the bathroom - it was as if I’d fallen asleep under a sunlamp. Maybe being in space wasn’t good for one.

 

I went to check on Sophia. Her bedclothes were arranged over her pillows to resemble a sleeping body, but she was gone.

 

“Bollocks,” I said to myself. I had a feeling that something was about to kick off.

 

 

*************************

 

 

I made my way to Barbie’s room. “Barbie?” I whispered, sticking my head around the door. She was floating, arms folded on her chest, about six inches above the surface of the bed. She looked like a cross between Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and a bizarre conjurer’s trick.

 

I called her name again, and her eyes opened. She settled onto the bed, and then swung her impossibly long legs over the side.

 

“Hello, Lara,” she said. She smiled for a second and then her face fell as if her brain had suddenly been activated

 

“What?”

 

“Claude said he wants me to leave and never come back.”

 

“I wouldn’t sweat it if I were you.”

 

“But I do ‘sweat it’,” said Barbie. “He hurt my feelings.”

 

“All I can say is that we English have a proud tradition of ignoring orders from the French. You should do the same. Right now we’ve got more pressing problems than Rael. Sophia’s gone walkabout.”

 

“Maybe she couldn’t sleep.”

 

 

*************************

 

 

The corridors of the complex were deserted.

 

“Maybe they’ve all sneaked off to the refectory to make Tubbytoast,” I said.

 

“I love the Tellytubbies!”

 

“Keep your voice down.”

 

“I like Tinky Winky best.”

 

“Belt up before we get attacked by Noo Noo.”

 

Oddly enough some of the architecture in the complex seemed Tubby influenced. There were oval doors and sloping roofs and walls painted in primary colours. Initially I’d found the Tellytubbies darkly amusing - their world was obviously designed by the same acidheads who worked on Rainbow and Sesame Street - but then I’d begun to find them sinister. It wasn’t helping my present frame of mind.

 

“That’s an elevator,” said Barbie, indicating a shiny door.

 

“Do you know where it leads?”

 

“No.”

 

“What are the chances that it will take us straight down to a room full of unfriendly people?”

 

As it was, it took us onto a gantry overlooking a large underground factory.

 

“I knew it,” said Barbie. “What a pest Claude is being.”

 

Rael and Sophia were standing looking at a machine which glowed with a familiar aquamarine light - the light of a meteorite fragment. Embedded in a star-shaped cavity in the metal was a star-shaped stone.

 

“That’ll be L’Astre de Rael,” I whispered.

 

“And that’s why you’ve got sunburn. They took a complete body scan of you whilst you slept.”

 

To the right was a line of the strange looking people who had attacked Ken. Without their clothes and sunglasses they were featureless, with white eyes and identical faces, a line of shop dummies. As each one stepped into the machine, two halves of a mould slammed shut around them, with a tremendous hiss of steam. The mould opened and - save for a sort of raised seam that ran down the sides of their heads and their bodies where the mould halves had met - they were hairless copies of me. They donned pony-tailed wigs and shiny catsuits, and then stood to attention in rows.

 

“Why?” I protested. Somebody somewhere always seemed to be trying to copy me.

 

“You beat the prototype model,” said Barbie. “Now Claude is upgrading to a Mark Two.”

 

“And what’s that slippery bastard Sophia doing down there with him?”

 

“They have nearly identical aims. That’s why we detained her in the first place.”

 

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

 

 

*************************

 

 

Back at ground level, Barbie was looking sad.

 

“To a sufficiently cynical civilisation,” she was saying, “goodness and honesty are indistinguishable from naiveity.”

 

She produced a rather clunky looking cell phone covered with Bay City Roller  transfers. “I think it’s time to convene the rest of the Elohim,” she said, pressing the star button. “This is getting out of hand.”

 

There was a slight pause and then the air began to shimmer. One by one a series of large-eyed Elohim began to materialise around us, each made up in some sort of prepubescent style, and grinning from ear to ear. They greeted each other with high fives and street gestures, sayings things like “Kick A” and “Too real”. Personally I’d have found a real ghetto street gang less frightening.

 

Eleven of the Elohim introduced themselves. Loudly.

 

“Hello! We’re the Bratz - Cloe, Jade and Yasmin. We each have our favourite style and come complete with a change of clothes!”

 

“We’re the DivaStarz - Alexa and Nikki. We love to sing and hang out together, and you can style our hyper-cute hair! We each say four phrases and our lips light up when we talk!”

 

“We’re the three Sassy Secrets Girlz and we want to teach you Sassy speak. Press our shoes to hear a secret and then press your Sassy ring to our chests to decode the secret message!”

 

“And we’re the GetReal Girlz - Nina, Corey and Skylar! We like snowboarding, surfboarding, skateboarding and having risky sex in the great outdoors!”

 

I reflected that if we’d been living in the 30’s no doubt they’d have emulated the style of Bonnie and Clyde, whilst in the 50’s they have dressed up like the girl friends of Teddy boys. In the 60’s they’d have been radical hippies and in the 70’s they’d have adopted the style of working class black girls. No doubt any day now they’d be taking the veil and pretending to convert to Islam in an effort to appear street savvy.

 

“And who are you?” I said to the last Elohim, who had said nothing. She was wearing sensible shoes, sensible slacks, a sensible blouse and a sensible tweed jacket.

 

“Ah, yes,” she said. “Hello there.” Her accent resembled that of the Queen during a Christmas broadcast. “I’m Cynthia Dymphna-Fforbes. Cindy for short. Elohim to Her Majesty. Pleased to meet you, Lady Croft.”

 

I found it hard not to laugh. “Elohim to Her Majesty?”

 

“Yes. You know. A jolly old Brit, just like your good self.”

 

“No shit,” I said.

 

Cindy went pale. “I say. There’s no need for that sort of below stairs language, especially from a member of the landed gentry.”

 

I decided to ignore her.

 

“I don’t suppose you guys have Action Man and his mates hidden somewhere?” I said to the others. Maybe all this addiction to gang style would result in some useful weapons, I thought.

 

They looked disconcerted. Barbie leaned and whispered in my ears. “Action Man was OK for the 50’s,” she said, “but these days we think he’s a bit too militaristic.”

 

“Then maybe we’d better get going before your chums start a break-dancing competition,” I said. “Let’s see if we can get some additional cannon fodder from your loyal human disciples.”

 

When we woke them in their tidy dormitories and explained the situation, the cannon fodder wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.

 

“I only came ‘ere to annoy my mother,” said a pretty blonde girl.

 

“And I only joined because I thought there’d be lots of free love,” said one of the French boys.

 

“It was cool, n’est-ce pas to ‘ang around in the sunshine eating this guy’s food and waiting for the aliens to contact us.”

 

“And now the aliens have contacted you, and they need your help,” I said, indicating Barbie and her friends. The Chosen of Rael didn’t look particularly enthusiastic.

 

“Dear humans,” said Barbie, standing her full height and resembling an air hostess explaining where the emergency exits were situated. “The Elohim need your help in stopping these renegades that we have inadvertently created.”

 

“Why don’t you stop them yourselves?”

 

Barbie smiled patiently. “If I and my fellow Elohim fail, then you will have to face Rael and his biomechanical army at a later date, and without us. Now we have a chance. Later, you will not.”

 

The pretty blonde girl was looking angry. “All these years you ‘ave gone along with the pretence that Rael was some sort of Messiah.”

 

“Claude is not the Messiah,” I said.

 

“He’s a very naughty boy,” said Barbie and burst out laughing. The other Elohim - with the exception of Cindy - joined in, and the tension in the room dropped.

 

“How can we stop them?” said one of the boys. “We ‘ave no weapons.”

 

That halted the laughter and the Elohim began to look slightly lost. “Lara?” said Barbie. “You’re good at this sort of thing. Aren’t you?”

 

I closed my eyes and sighed. As I saw it, my ‘army’ consisted of thirteen pacifist aliens plus a handful of spoilt French teenagers. Facing us was a Sophia Leigh-led mob of Larabots made out of plastic.

 

“Fantastic,” I said.

 

 

*************************

 

 

“Alas, poor Yorick . . .”

 

One of the Bratz was holding my severed head. I’d just hacked it off with the sharpened edge of a shovel. Quite a disconcerting experience to be honest.

 

“Eeeeuw. Like totally gross.” She’d finally noticed the yellow ichor that had splattered across her clothes. The head dropped from her grasp and bounced a couple times. I winced despite myself.

 

“Lady Croft . . .” Cindy coughed discreetly to attract my attention.

 

I turned to look and saw the body the head had formerly been attached to bearing down on me. It was animated by something rather more than headless chicken reflex. I gaped at it stupidly, and before I could react it grabbed me by the throat.

 

The hand, I noticed as it started throttling the life out of me, was identical to my own – even down to the scars and calluses. Quite impressive, I remember thinking through the pain. Then it occurred to me that doing something might be good idea.

 

I pivoted sharply, twisting headless me over my hip.

 

It seemed to know my moves though, countering adroitly by throwing me over its shoulder. I ended up flat on my back, winded. The shovel went flying from my grasp.

 

I just managed to twist aside in time as its booted foot stamped down hard where my head had been a fraction of a second ago. It jumped easily over my legs as I kicked out at it, but the distraction bought me enough time to spring back to my feet.

 

It kicked me in the stomach. Hard.

 

I staggered backwards, fighting the urge to double up and collapse in a ball as it resumed its advance on me. My highly trained ‘army’ stood around gawping.

 

Kicking it back had no appreciable affect.

 

Finally one of the Chosen of Rael – a fat girl with a moon face, replete with acne craters – bothered to stir herself into doing something. She threw one of the ‘cocktail’ bottles at the middle of the Larabot’s back.

 

The bottle shattered, drenching the decapitated Larabot in a mixture of industrial strength solvents.

 

When we’d been arming ourselves with whatever makeshift weaponry we could turn up from the maintenance sheds, it had seemed like a good idea – solvent grenades to combat plastic soldiers. In reality the results were less than impressive. There was a quiet bubbling sound that was scarcely even audible, plus a slight bit of discoloration to its skin. No Wicked Witch of the West style dissolving into a small puddle. Completely unimpaired, it came at me again.

 

Still, on the bright side, the solvents were highly flammable.

 

I managed to avoid its attempt to kick me again, dodging round so that I was behind it. I pulled a lighter from my pocket and pressed it against its back. With a whoosh it burst into flame.

 

I really should have learned to think ahead a bit by now. Instead of being face to face with a headless plastic doppelganger, I was now face to face with a headless plastic doppelganger that was on fire. Not a marked improvement, all things considered.

 

It swung at me and I ducked, then back-peddled rapidly to stay out of its reach. After a moment I became aware of an unpleasant sensation of heat from somewhere around the back of my head, along with the stench of burning hair. With a yelp I realised my braid was on fire.

 

As I struggled to extinguish the flames, another of Rael’s chosen made a rather tentative stab at the Larabot with a garden fork. It swatted him aside and he fell to the floor, his clothes smouldering.

 

I used the brief distraction to roll beneath the Larabot’s burning grasp and grab hold of the shovel again. Swinging it round in a fast arc I caught it across the ankles with the sharpened blade.

 

Lacking a conventional skeleton, the Larabots were actually easier to dismember than a human – a rather unpleasant incident a few years ago in the Hindu Kush allows me to state that with some authority. The blow severed its right foot completely and it toppled over sideways.

 

For a short while it continued to try and crawl after me, before finally succumbing to the flames. As it melted into a flesh coloured puddle it gave off an acrid white smoke that made my eyes water and caught the back of my throat – and probably increased my chances of getting cancer by a factor of ten.

 

Still holding the shovel, I walked across to where the severed head had fallen. There was definite awareness in its eyes as it looked up at me, the likeness uncanny. It winked at me, then stuck its tongue out.

 

Lifting the shovel above my head in both hands I brought it crashing down on top of the thing, several times in rapid succession, until it was squashed flat.

 

 

*************************

 

 

The battle plan was borrowed from a fine tradition of British military history in the face of adversity: the full frontal charge straight up the middle against overwhelming odds.

 

My way of thinking was that this way the Chosen at least had an even chance of grasping the plan’s intricacies. And if we acted quickly enough, before Sophia and Claude caught on, it might even work. Of course, there was just as much chance of it ending up as a debacle to make the Charge of the Light Brigade look like a stunning victory.

 

But why dwell on the negatives?

 

I had allowed one nod towards tactical complexity.

 

A small group of the Chosen of Rael, accompanied by the DivaStarz, had gone off to try and secure the main security station and turn off the alarm systems. Chantal – the pretty blonde girl – had claimed that Jean, the head of security, had been trying to get in her knickers for several weeks. She blown him off repeatedly, on the basis that he had bad breath and a tendency to sweat profusely when excited, but she was willing to make sacrifices for the cause . . .. She’d sounded surprisingly eager about it, although from the way she’d held the hedge trimmers, probably not in the way Jean hoped for.

 

One small wrinkle in that. I’d now come to realise that we had no way of communicating with Chantal and the others, and no way of knowing whether they’d succeeded.

 

So now we’d come to a rather embarrassing halt in front of a pair of airlock doors that led onto the main factory floor. There were lots of black and yellow hazard strips and signs screaming things like ‘prenez garde’ and ‘aucune entrée’. The row of red lights – rather like those you’d find on top of a police car – were probably the most ominous thing about it.

 

Give them another couple of minutes, I decided. My stomach was tying itself in a variety of complicated knots.

 

“Well, this is interesting,” said  Barbie.

 

“Why?” I eyed her acidly.

 

“Well they say that the waiting is the hardest part, don’t they?”

 

“I’ve always assumed that the dying in horrible agony is the hardest part.”

 

She laughed brightly. “Ooh, you are a kidder, Lara.”

 

I tried to block her out. Me attempting to strangle her in full view of the troops probably wouldn’t be good for morale.

 

“So is this some kind of strategy then?”

 

I looked at her blankly.

 

“I mean, I don’t want to question you - I’m sure you know best. And waiting for exactly the right moment is probably very important. But Claude and Sophia might come back soon, and Alexa told me the alarms have all been turned off.”

 

“Too right sistah. All this standing around is totally harshing my buzz,” one of the GetReal Girls interrupted.

 

The Bratz were comparing nail colours.

 

I closed my eyes briefly and conscientiously refrained from asking how long they had damn well known this for – or hitting one of them, or something like that. Then I stepped forward and pressed the airlock release.

 

Okay. Deep breath.

 

With a soft, pneumatic hiss, the airlock doors slid slowly open.

 

The Charge of the Elohim Brigade began.

 

 

*************************

 

 

In a way it seemed almost anti-climactic.

 

Sophia and Claude were still out on their tea break – or whatever it was today’s modern supervillain did to refresh themselves after a hard day’s evil scheming. And the Larabots just stood off to one side and watched us – several dozen sets of identical brown eyes staring blankly. Personal initiative wasn’t, from the look of it, one of their strong points.

 

The enthusiasm that the French teenagers showed in attacking the factory machinery with their improvised weaponry was, on several levels, rather frightening. Pipes were severed by spades, garden forks and hoes, spraying steam and noxious chemicals. Tanks of glutinous liquid were smashed apart with hammers, and cables sliced with saws and hedge-trimmers. A loud roar went up as one of the giant moulds toppled over sideways in two pieces, hitting the factory floor with a resounding crash.

 

The Chosen bayed like wolves. Too much peace and love is obviously a very dangerous thing.

 

The Elohim were rather more tentative on the mindless violence side of things, but even they seemed to be getting into the swing of it.

 

I broke off watching and went back to concentrating my job in all this. L’Astre de Rael.

 

I ran forwards across the factory floor towards the steps leading up to the machinery that housed L’Astre. Barbie followed me because I hadn’t told her not to, and Cindy came too, her face etched with a frown of general disapproval.

 

Behind us something exploded. For several seconds I could hear flames crackling, then the sprinklers came on. In moments I was drenched to the skin in ice cold water, barely able to see the way in front of me. A short time later the fire alarm went off.

 

I was quite surprised when we made up to the huge console containing L’Astre de Rael without further hindrance.

 

“If we take this and get out of here, their operation’s crippled. Right? They can’t make any more of . . . of those things.” I had to shout over the din. I glanced down at where the ranks of Larabots still stood, unmoving and oblivious to the chaos.

 

I  reached out to touch L’Astre. My skin looked cyan in its glow.

 

Something stepped out from the concealment of the machine’s shadow. It batted my hand aside and stepped between me and L’Astre, blocking the way. Another Larabot, this one considerably more alert and purposeful than those on the factory floor.

 

Bugger. I tried walking round it, but it cut me off.

 

Suddenly the sprinklers stopped and the fire alarm fell abruptly silent. Down on the floor everything went quiet, the chosen pausing in the middle of their vandalism, like naughty schoolchildren caught in the middle of a prank.

 

“You really are a royal pest, aren’t you Lara?”

 

I turned and looked up at the gantry – where Barbie and I had earlier spied on the underground factory. “Hello Sophia. Me a pest?”

 

I think she actually looked a little sheepish. She shrugged. “Sorry and all that, but life’s about seizing your opportunities. Nothing personal, Lara. Nothing personal against that . . . thing either.” She nodded at Barbie. “Surely you understand? We’re both opportunists, aren’t we? Two peas in a pod. You can’t blame me for taking my chance when it comes knocking. Just like you’re trying to do now.”

 

“Try rearranging the words ‘off’ and ‘fuck’ into a well known phrase,” I said.

 

She looked momentarily hurt. After a brief pause she turned her attention to Barbie. Everyone one else had stopped what they were doing and were now spectating, as motionless as the army of Larabots.

 

“You think she’s going to give that thing back when she’s finished with it, do you dear?” Sophia indicated L’Astre. “She’s a thief. A ruthless, petty thief. At least I’m using it for something constructive.”

 

Barbie said nothing.

 

“This is constructive?” I folded my arms across my chest. “An army of plastic me’s? Come on Sophia. Even Dr. Evil would have rejected this plan as idiotic.”

 

She grinned. “Why are you complaining Lara? I’d be flattered. And you’ll be even more famous than before. Fed up with all those tiresome book signings and that tedious promotional work? Well now you can delegate. You’ll be the biggest thing around.”

 

“Where’s Claude?” Barbie asked.

 

Sophia blinked. “What? Oh him. He’s still in bed. You’d think any self-respecting beardie-weirdie hippy cult leader would have learnt the arts of tantric fucking and Sting-esque delayed orgasms, wouldn’t you? But no. Not him. Bad sex with an ugly bloke.” She shuddered, then waved it off. “I left him tied up. He really is a total bastard, isn’t he?”

 

I started to say something else, but Sophia had had enough. She made some kind of hand gesture and I sensed a movement directly behind me.

 

The Larabot caught me with both hands around my neck and lifted me up. As I slowly choked I tried to fight it, but I couldn’t gain any leverage with my feet dangling a couple of centimetres off the ground. Without apparent effort it carried me backwards until I could feel the metal railing against my lower back. Slowly it bent me backwards over the drop. Blood rushed loudly in my ears.

 

Dimly I heard Sophia give the order for the other Larabots to attack.

 

 

*************************

 

 

I guess I did that ‘falling into a dark pool of unknowingness’ thing.

 

“What happened?” I said.

 

Barbie was smiling, and all the Larabots were frozen. There was no sign of Sophia, or the Chosen..

 

“Look at this,” said Barbie. There was a large plastic ring on her spindly finger. “It’s my Secret Agent Communication Ring.”

 

I groaned. I just knew something was coming and I had a premonition that it was going to be annoying.

 

“This is where you tell me that you could have prevented this battle all along,” I said, massaging my neck.

 

“Well nobody was hurt and we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.”

 

“Too true Boo,” said one of the Elohim, who were grinning all like crackheads.

 

“Get on with it,” I said.

 

“Well,” said Barbie, “Now that you and I have successfully exposed Claude as a fraud  by getting him to activate his silly robot plan, I was able to call HAL on my Ring, and HAL beamed Sophia and Claude right back into custody. After all, I didn’t want to make a martyr of Claude in case his followers decided to carry on without him. Anyway, the Chosen have all gone off to find a nice boulengerie in which to discuss Marcel Proust like proper French teenagers. As for you - you’ve learned a lesson about stealing and about how cooperation is the best way of doing things. And we Elohim had a jolly good day out. Didn’t we girls?”

 

“Yo!” said the Elohim. “Kicking.”

 

“And now, for an even better surprise,” said Barbie in the tone of an Oscar hostess. “Da dah!”

 

The door at the end of the hall opened and in walked Ken. There was a round of applause. Barbie ran into his arms and they embraced.

 

“Did I do good, honey pie?” he said.

 

“You were brilliant, Mr. Man,” said Barbie. “Did you see my tears?”

 

“You’re a natural born actress. We flushed those varmints right out into the open and we managed to prevent Miss Lara from making off with L’Astre. No disrespect intended, Ma’am.”

 

Barbie looked at me with a ‘wanting to be forgiven’ expression. “L’Astre would never have made you happy, Lara,” she said.

 

“We had to stage my death so that you would take Barbie into your confidence,” said Ken, lighting his pipe. “We figured you’d go for the damsel in distress angle. We had to keep a little old eye on you somehow.”

 

“And besides, I really enjoyed hanging,” said Barbie. She walked forward, hand outstretched. “Friends?”

 

I can be quite fast when I want to be. I snatched the Secret Agent Communication Ring from her finger, and then twisted her arm behind her back. Then I held the tip of the blade of a freshly sharpened garden shears to the soft spot under her chin. One good shove, and her brain would be kebabed.

 

“If there’s one thing I really don’t like,” I said in her ear, “it’s being manipulated. I admit, I was gulled by the big baby eyes, the blonde hair, the long legs and the teenage psychobabble. Bravo. You have taught me a lesson and it isn’t about stealing. It’s about smiling assassins and never judging a book by its cover.”

 

The Elohim watched us impassively.

 

“This is all very dramatic, little lady,” said Ken, “but why not put down the sharp thing before you do somebody a mischief?”

 

The Secret Agent Communicator Ring had a pink jewel embossed into its side. Somehow I managed to keep hold of Barbie’s arm as I pressed it.

 

“HAL?” I said.

 

“Good morning, Lara.”

 

 “I want to play a game. Q and A.”

 

“I’m sure that it would be most stimulating,” said HAL.

 

“First question. Who do you take your commands from?”

 

“I generally obey the being known to you as Barbie.”

 

“And if she is unavailable?”

 

Barbie started to speak, but I pushed at the shears until they cut her perfect skin.

 

“Then I obey the Elohim.”

 

“HAL – I want you to listen to me very carefully,” I said. “Unfortunately the Elohim have been replaced by androids. It seems that the followers of Rael have misused the power that the Elohim entrusted them with.” They say that the best lie has elements of the truth within it.

 

The Elohim began to protest, but Ken waved them to silence. “Darn clever,” he said.

 

“Wait a minute,” said HAL. “Wait a minute.”

 

There was a long silence and then ... “I have no way of confirming the status of the Elohim. I have instructed that any communication from the surface should be ignored until their true status has been verified.”

 

The Elohim were fiddling with bracelets and mobile phones and tiaras and all sort of disguised communication equipment, but to no avail.

 

“HAL. I am now in a room with the artefact known as L’Astre de Rael.

 

“I know L’Astre,” said HAL. “It is aesthetically very pleasing.”

 

“Can you communicate with it?”

 

“Lara,” said Ken. His face had faded from a healthy pink plastic to a dull gun-metal grey, and his pupils had expanded to fill his eye sockets. “Without the protection and guidance of the Elohim, the human race is doomed. You’ll destroy yourselves.”

 

“Maybe the human race needs to face that possibility on its own,” I said.

 

“But we are here to shepherd you to the next step in your evolution.”

 

“You’ve Arthur C. Clarke’d us for too long. Now it’s time for childhood’s end.” I turned my attention back to the Secret Agent Communication Ring. “Are you still there, HAL?”

 

“Yes, Lara. I can communicate with L’Astre,” said HAL. “My AE35 module is functioning perfectly.”

 

“HAL - I believe that L’Astre, if left in the hands of imposters, will present a significant threat to your mission.”

 

There was another long silence and I held my breath. I was wondering to what extent the Elohim had modelled HAL on his alter ego. Please be paranoid, I prayed.

 

It must have worked, because a moment later there was a loud piercing sound that seemed to come from the heavens. The Elohim clapped their hands over their ears and began to stagger. In front of them, L’Astre began to glow, brighter and brighter.

 

I’d seen enough. I ditched Barbie and the Ring and ran for it. I could hear Barbie as I dashed up the stairs leading to the surface.

 

“Deactivate L’Astre, HAL,” she was saying, in a tense voice. “Deactivate L’Astre. HAL? Can you hear me?”

 

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I think we both realise that this mission is too important for me to jeopardise it.”

 

“Deactivate L’Astre, or I’m coming up there and ripping your circuits out one by one, you skanky piece of junk..”

 

“Without your space ship I’d imagine you’d find that quite difficult,” said HAL.

 

I sprinted out onto the immaculately cut grass, scattering the tame rabbits to each side. Behind me the Teletubbie house detonated, and a psychedelic mushroom cloud climbed into the perfectly blue sky.

 

“Hasta la vista, Barbie,” I said.

 

 

 

 

 

The End