Marina Petrovium had enjoyed a childhood both opulent and bohemian, as the daughter of the Russian ambassador in Istanbul. The ambassador's residence was a triple-tiered mansion of vaulted arcades, marble-pillared foyers, music rooms, and dusty libraries. Behind the mansion, a terraced garden maintained by a battalion of gardeners and horticulturalists, cascaded down to the sparkling blue Bosphorus, a gently scrolling technicolour banner of yachts, barges, trawlers, schooners, ferries and container vessels.
Cedar, cork and cypress shaded the immaculately-striped lawn of the upper terrace, which thence graded into a maze of fruit trees, flowering bushes, trimmed hedgerows, and serpentine paths between sparkling fountains and efflorescent borders.
Down in the densest, deepest dells of the garden, secreted from sight beneath a rhododendron bush, was a mossy outcrop of rock, whose dark striations fascinated the mind of eight year old Marina. An ever-resourceful, inquisitive, and largely unsupervised child, she eventually prised free a sample with hammer and chisel, and subjected it to a battery of tests within her father's workshop. Whilst the spirit-level and the voltmeter responded in mute fashion to Marina's empirical enquiries, her uncle's long-neglected Geiger counter yielded rather more garrulous results.
To Marina's disappointment, however, her pitchblende discovery provoked not parental approbation, but a sizeable degree of consternation, and she was rewarded for her initiative with a series of unpleasant visits to Dr Chezhkov's clinic in Kiev. Her curiosity, however, had been irreversibly piqued...
Two weeks ago, I'd never heard of Marina Petrovium, or the IAEA's Division of Paranuclear Phenomena. The first we knew something was wrong was when one of the Health Physics surveyors, (a fellow with a somewhat Hitchcockian profile, called Ted Straw), returned from a stint in the fifth chamber, complaining of mild nausea and a severe headache. Two hours after reporting to the medical centre, he was yelling about ghostly apparitions, and had to be restrained by a nurse and two orderlies.
We assumed at the time that the poor fellow had merely contracted some sort of virus, and developed a nasty fever. Eight days later, however, three of the trainee health physicists seconded to the chamber went mad, screaming about demonic voices exhorting them to commit acts of self-mutilation. One was found losing copious amounts of blood after severing his arm in a lift-shaft, while the other two blinded themselves with ballpoint pens. Remote CCTV revealed that a cavity had opened up in the floor of the fifth chamber, and was pulsing with a blue glow.
It was then that I knew I had a problem.
Now, myself, Marina, Dr Burgher, and two RPAs, had taken the cargo lift down to the excavations, where we had donned reflective overalls, hard-hats, and waterproof boots, and proceeded to the first chamber.
The still, damp air was saturated with a thick, viscid darkness, broken only by the static pools of wall-mounted Halogen light, and the roaming pencil-beams of our helmet-lamps, picking out glistening details on the rocky chamber floor. A tangle of braided power cables crawled blindly down the tunnel-wall leading from the chamber. A distant dink of dripping water, and the ambient hum of electric generators, provided a sonic background to the claustrolithic environment.
The tunnel leading from the chamber branched after fifty metres or so, each branch itself splitting after a further fifty metres, then branching once again. Down here, I sometimes imagined myself to be exploring the suffocatingly still lungs of a sleeping granite giant, which would imminently wake, and fling off the overlying layers of rock, sediment and soil, like a geological duvet, to bestride the Earth once more.
"I do so love spelunking, don't you?" whispered Marina in my ear, as Dr Burgher demonstrated how to operate our helmet-lamps.
"The chambers are distributed over three levels," explained Burgher as he continued his briefing. "To reach the fifth, we must proceed by vehicle down the network of tunnels here on the first level until we reach the second chamber. There is a natural vertical channel in that chamber, through which we have bored a lift-shaft. That will take us to the second level, along which the tunnels are too narrow for vehicular travel. We must then proceed on foot, and then by ladder, down to the third level."