Just as Mr Blake had said, the camera turned to follow them when they moved.

“Oh no!” whispered Dora. “They've probably been watching us ever since we came up here!”

“Not necessarily,” said Adam. “It might work automatically. And they might not be able to see me anyway.”

“Yes, but they'll be able to see me!”

“But you're in disguise. You've got that suit on.”

“And what about Mr Blake?”

“Perhaps they can't see him either.”

“Of course they can see him! If they couldn't see him they wouldn't have captured him in the first place, would they?”

“Children,” said Mr Blake, “whether or not they can see us, the important thing is what to do next. Do we turn back or do we go on? If we turn back, then it means that we are abandoning your search for the box. Is that what you wish to do?”

“No,” said Dora.

“But perhaps we should go back and get you one of these suits, Mr Blake,” said Adam. “To act as a disguise.”

Mr Blake shrugged. “If they are watching us, then it's too late now for a disguise. If not, then we are lucky, and perhaps the best way to use our luck is by continuing the search.”

“And anyway,” said Dora, “it's the most uncomfortable thing in the world. I've never been so hot and sweaty in my life.”

“Keep moving, then,” said Adam, and led them on down the passage. The camera turned its head to follow them.


The corridor went on and on, curving very slightly. They seemed to be walking in a huge circle. There were no side-turnings: only the shut doors, the keypads, the bottles of soap. Once every fifty steps or so there was another surveillance-camera, just below the ceiling, pointing towards them as if it was waiting for them, and turning to follow them as they passed. They tried not to let these mechanical stares make them nervous.

“Where did you get that card from, Dora?” said Adam.

“What card?”

“The one you opened Mr Blake's door with.”

“Oh, that,” said Dora, who was so busy feeling uncomfortable in her suit that she'd almost forgotten everything else. “I found it on the floor. In that cloakroom.”

“That was a bit of luck,” said Adam.

“Look, children,” said Mr Blake. “If my eyes don't deceive me, one of the lights ahead of us is lit.”

“You're right!” said Adam.

They hurried towards the door with the red light, and peeped cautiously through the little window, but there was nothing much to see: in fact the window seemed to be fogged over or veiled somehow, so that everything beyond looked indistinct.

“Try your card again, Dora,” instructed Adam.

Dora lifted the card, but Mr Blake stopped her. “Wait a moment,” he said. “Can I see it?”

She handed it to him. He looked at the picture, then handed it back to her.

“Urizen,” he said.

“You mean this is his picture?” said Dora.

“Let me see it,” said Adam, snatching it away from her.

“Have you met him?” said Dora.

“In visions,” said Mr Blake. “The same as the Queen of the Night – but much more frequently.”

“He looks terrible,” remarked Adam, handing back the card.

“Yes – why does he look so bad?”

“Because he is trapped by his own laws. He no longer truly believes in anything outside himself. His only way of relating to the outside world is either to fear it or to steal something from it. He has turned the infinite possibilities of the human heart into a little machine of self-interest. And because of that, his life is a life without hope.”

“Wait a minute,” said Adam. “If that card's got Urizen's picture on, then either all the cards have got his picture on, or else that's his personal card.”

Dora looked at the card again. “It's probably his personal card,” she said.

“So perhaps it acts as a master-key to this whole place.”

“Perhaps it does.”

“That really was a bit of luck, finding it on the floor like that.”

Dora looked at the door and the keypad. “Well,” she said, “shall I see if it works again?”

“You might as well,” replied Adam.

She ran the card through the slot on the right hand side of the keypad: there was a beep and a hiss, and the door opened. Immediately, they could see why the view through the little window had been veiled: inside the door was a kind of airlock, a mini-passageway like a semi-transparent plastic tube, with a semi-transparent plastic membrane across the far end. The membrane was divided into two halves, and the two halves overlapped slightly in the middle, to form an airtight seal. After a moment of hesitation, Adam pushed his way through it into the room beyond, and the other two followed. The membrane was slightly elastic.

As soon as they got through the membrane they could hear voices, slightly muffled, as if they were coming from the next room. They froze. But the voices sounded artificial, and didn't seem to be moving around or changing in volume.

“I think someone's watching telly,” whispered Dora.

Mr Blake looked blank.

“Wow,” whispered Adam. “Look at the state of this place.”

“Do you think somebody actually lives here?” whispered Dora.

“I dunno,” said Adam.

The room was completely white, and the only two items of furniture in it were a white bed and a white coffee-table. But the bed was rumpled and the sheets and pillowcases looked as if they hadn't been changed for months – at least. The coffee-table was covered with medicine: cough-mixtures, multivitamins, inhalers, painkillers, sleeping-tablets, garlic capsules, royal jelly, laxatives, antacids, ointments, gels, corn-plasters, bunion-pads, haemorrhoid cream and treatments for verrucas, all mixed together higgledy-piggledy. On the floor were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cartons: fruit-juices, yoghurt drinks, fruit smoothies, pureed food – anything which could be sucked out of a carton through a straw. The unopened ones were stacked in reasonably good order against the walls, but the empty cartons were absolutely everywhere, strewn across the floor, three or four deep in places, like a shingle of garbage. But they hadn't simply been tossed aside: they were all sealed inside transparent self-sealing plastic bags. Amongst them were hundreds and hundreds of discarded paper tissues, screwed into little balls, each one sealed up in just the same way, inside its own transparent plastic bag.

“This is a room full of sadness,” said Mr Blake.

“The telly must be through there,” whispered Adam.

There were no windows in the room, but to their right was another door, standing open. On the far side of it, in a dark room, something was flickering.

They crept forward. There was a path through the rubbish from the bed to the television-room, and they followed it.

The room next door contained not just one screen, but many. They were on the wall opposite the door. In front of them was a high-backed chair. There must have been at least a hundred monitors banked up, all showing what looked like views of the Urizen Corporation headquarters – offices, elevator-halls, lobbies, cluttered desktops, empty chairs, and one or two external views. Almost every one of these views was empty of human life.

In one, however, a queue of children wrapped up in hats and coats was being ushered on board one of the Corporation's big black cars by a couple of men in suits. The children were all flushed with excitement, smiling and chattering, and carrying brightly-wrapped presents. Dora recognised her little friend Alice. Presumably this was the end of the Christmas Experience, and the children imagined that they were about to be driven home in Santa's sleigh.

Another monitor showed a lone security-guard pacing up and down in an entrance-hall, in front of some glass doors, on the other side of which could be seen the darkness, the glittering Christmas decorations and the hurrying traffic of central London. The guard kept yawning and rubbing his face. Some people were just going by on the pavement outside the door, loaded with bags and bags of shopping: a grey haired man in a black coat, a red faced woman in a purple jacket, and a girl with long brown hair carrying a toy reindeer with a red nose.

But right in the middle of the monitor-bank was a screen four times bigger than any of the others, and this screen showed one of the white rooms on the top floor. In the middle of the room was a white table, and on the white table was Dora's box. The cards were spread out across the table-top. On the far side of the table stood two people in protective suits. Because they had their hoods up, it took Dora a couple of moments to recognize them. They were Natasha and Gareth.

This was the screen that the sound of voices was coming from.


Gareth pulled back the elasticated cuff of his suit, and glanced nervously at his watch. “Hadn't you better take it to him? He'll be waiting for it, won't he?”

“He doesn't even know I've got it yet.”

“You mean you haven't told him?”

“I just wanted to have a look at it first.”

“But you've been looking at it for ages.”

“Shut up, Gareth. I'm trying to concentrate.”

There was a short pause.

“But you're going to give it to him in the end,” said Gareth, unable to keep quiet any longer.

“Yes, yes,” snapped Natasha. “Of course I am! I just want a look at it first. I want to know what all the fuss is about.”

“But I sent you the pictures from my house.”

“I know you did – but that's not the same as seeing it for myself, is it? There must be something about these cards. They're obviously a puzzle of some kind. They're clues. But what are they clues to? It must be something important. It must be huge. I've never known Urizen so determined to get his hands on anything before.”

“Well,” said Gareth, “there's this green Santa. He's a bit off-message, isn't he? I mean, Urizen's trying to take control of Christmas, isn't he? He's trying to brand it. He wants to wrap it up in a single package and corner the marketing rights. Santa's image is part of the brand identity. So Urizen doesn't want any green Santas turning up and confusing things.”

“No, no, you don't understand how he works,” objected Natasha. “Actually I've been the driving force behind the Christmas Experience: I've done most of the marketing and image-development. It's me that would worry about that kind of issue, not Urizen. He doesn't bother himself with matters of detail. He wants control of Christmas, all right – just like he wants control of everything – and he had the idea for the Christmas Experience; but he left all the details up to me.”

Gareth glanced up at the camera. “You say he doesn't know you've got the box yet,” he remarked, “but what if he's watching us right now?”

Natasha glanced at the camera too.

“Oh, you needn't worry about that. I had the camera in this room fixed ages ago. That's why I always come here. It relays a picture of what's going on in the room next door. It's the only blind spot in the entire surveillance operation.”

“Clever,” said Gareth.

“But in any case,” said Natasha, “he trusts me. I'm the only one he deals with nowadays.”

“You mean you've met him?”

“No. Nobody ever meets him any more. Nobody ever sees him. But he gives me messages and instructions, and I pass them on. And I bring him the things he wants. I leave them in a room, and after I've gone he comes to collect them.”

“So how does he communicate?”

“He sends me texts. Or e-mails.”

“Does he ever come out of his rooms?”

“He used to. We used to find notes and things all over the building. He used to come out when nobody else was around. Years ago, apparently, he used to attend meetings once or twice a year. That must have been terrifying. But that was years ago, well before my time. As far as I know, he hasn't been out of his apartment for about ten years. He's got his own security card, which allows him access to all parts of the building – but he never seems to use it any more.”

“Perhaps he's lost it,” said Gareth.

Natasha smiled. “That would be ironic, wouldn't it? He'd be trapped. He wouldn't be able to get out of his suite of rooms. Imagine that: Urizen trapped right in the middle of his own organisation.”

“Or perhaps somebody's stolen it.”

“Well, that's a thought too. If somebody really had stolen it, they'd have access to everything. I wouldn't mind having that card. But there's been no sign of any tampering. Urizen hasn't been coming out of his room for about ten years now – so if his card really has been stolen, then the thief has had it for ten years, and never done anything with it. What sort of a thief would that be? Someone who just wanted to steal Urizen's card as a joke? You wouldn't be human if you didn't try to use it in some way. I would if I found it.”

“Perhaps it wasn't a human being. Perhaps it was something like a squirrel. Perhaps a squirrel came scampering in here one day and stole it.”

“Huh. I'd like to see the squirrel that could get through this security system."

"Some of those squirrels can be really clever," said Gareth. "They can get through anything. I saw this programme on the telly once -"

"Gareth," said Natasha tightly, "will you shut up about squirrels? What are you talking about squirrels for? Are you a complete idiot? Squirrels have got nothing to do with it."

"Okay," said Gareth submissively. "Sorry, Natasha."

She stared at him for a moment, then resumed. "I'll tell you what really happened: Urizen got this thing about germs, and it gradually got worse and worse. He started getting a fixation about them years ago, certainly well before I joined the company. First of all it was just eating out of packages – he just suddenly stopped eating normal food - then it was wash your hands before you go through a door, then it was the protective suits, and now it's reached the stage where he can't meet anyone face-to-face, or even come out of his suite.”

“He's gone mental, in other words.”

“Well, he's a genius. You can't be a genius unless you're a little bit mad.”

“Maybe that's the only reason he's got such a thing about this box. Because he's gone mental.”

Natasha frowned crossly. “No, no, no. Stop talking rubbish, Gareth. You're really getting on my nerves today. I don't believe that. There's got to be more to it than that. There's just got to be.”

“Well,” said Gareth, “what about these blank cards? There weren't this many blank ones before, when I sent you the images from my house.”

“Yes,” ruminated Natasha, “well, I've got a theory about that. I think they must have some kind of expiry-formula on them, so that when they get past a certain hour of a certain day they go blank. You can program web pages to do that – suddenly go blank at half-past three on Wednesday.”

“But these aren't web pages,” objected Gareth, picking one up. “They're just cards.”

“They look like they're just cards.” Natasha took the card from him and looked at it edgeways. “They look so simple, they must really be incredibly sophisticated. My guess would be some kind of programmable hologram.”

“But you can see that they're made out of card!”

“Oh, they're partly made out of card, all right. I think the hologram layer must be stuck to the top, which means it must be fantastically thin. So maybe that's why Urizen's so interested in them. Maybe it's this hologram technology that he wants to get his hands on.”

“But another thing I don't understand,” said Gareth, “is how he always seemed to know where they were. What was that last place he sent us to? Way out in the back of beyond. Nothing but rock and dust. It was like the surface of the moon or something. A disused quarry, was it? Hundreds and hundreds of miles away – I don't even know which country it was in. The coordinates get programmed into the car, and you could be going anywhere. It's like a journey in a dream sometimes. But how on earth did the cards get there, wherever it was, and how on earth did he know where to find them? It's like they're transmitting some kind of signal, and he's the only one that can pick it up.”

“Yes, you're right,” said Natasha. “Maybe that's exactly what's happening. Maybe they really are transmitting a signal – in which case, they're even more sophisticated than I thought.” She looked at the edge of the card again. “I suppose what I could do,” she said, “is take one of them down to the lab and have it analysed. They could take it apart layer by layer.”

“You wouldn't dare,” said Gareth. “Not with Urizen waiting for them.”

“Wouldn't I? You see, Gareth, that's why you'll always be one of the little guys: you're too scared to take a risk. You're frightened to put yourself on the line. Nobody gets ahead in this game unless they're prepared to stick their neck out. And don't forget, Urizen doesn't even know I've got the box yet...”

At that moment there was an electronic buzzing noise. Natasha put the card back down on the table.

“That's my mobile,” she said crossly. “I thought I'd switched it off.” She unzipped the front of her protective suit and fumbled inside for a moment, then brought out her mobile. “It's only a text.”

“Who's it from?” said Gareth.

Natasha didn't reply. She was staring at her mobile, and her face was going white.

“Who's it from?” repeated Gareth.

“It's from Urizen.”

“Oh! From Urizen. What does he say?”

“He says he wants the box. He says he wants it immediately, without any further delay.”

Gareth stared at her.

“I thought you said he didn't know you'd got the box.”

“Shut up, Gareth, I'm trying to think.”

“But I thought you said -”

“I said shut up, Gareth!”

Gareth shut up. Natasha stood biting her lips and staring at the cards. Then she looked up at the camera. Then she suddenly turned on him.

“This is all your fault, Gareth! I'll kill you for this!”

“My fault!” said Gareth, astounded. “How's it my fault?”

But Natasha flew at him. She scratched him viciously down both cheeks and followed up with a stinging slap round his left ear before he could even defend himself: then, as he backed away with his arms over his eyes, she started pulling his hair and kicking him.

“You'll never work for this company again, Gareth, you treacherous worm! I'll break you in pieces for this! I'll rip your face off, you little weasel!”

“Ow! Get off me!”

“Urizen knows I wouldn't betray him! He knows it was all your fault! He knows everything that goes on around here! You're finished in this company, Gareth!”

Gareth made no attempt to fight back. He lurched to the door, and punched a number into the keypad as fast as he could while she rained blows and kicks on him and screamed insults and threats at him from behind. Then he was gone.

Natasha turned back to the table, breathing heavily. Some of her hair had come loose from her hood, and she tucked it back in with trembling fingers. Then she started to gather up the cards and return them to the box. It was obvious from the way she was doing it that she was terribly nervous and distraught. The cards seemed to cling to the table-top; she had to scrabble with her fingernails to pick them up; then she kept dropping them again. She was whispering to them: “Come on, you stupid things, oh please come on.” A tear splashed down onto the table-top, and she smeared her eyes with the backs of her hands. When the cards were finally all back in place she closed the box lid and hastened from the room without another glance at the camera.


There was a silence. Then, just as Dora was about to say something, the high-backed chair at the front of the room swivelled to the right, and a man stood up. He was tall and emaciated, with tangled and matted long white hair, and a tangled and matted long white beard, both reaching almost to his feet. He was wearing a long white robe like a night-shirt. Mr Blake and the two children were within a few feet of him, but he took no more notice of them than if they had been invisible. He shuffled slowly across the room to the right, and when she heard the rustling noise his walking made, Dora noticed that he had two plastic bags over his feet, elasticated round the ankles. Then she saw his fingernails, which were so long that they had twisted into spirals.

An automatic door to the right of the television-screens opened with a hiss, letting in a glare of electric light; then it closed again behind him.

The children and Mr Blake were alone in the television-room. All the television-screens were empty, except for the security guard pacing and yawning in front of the plate glass doors. The children from the Christmas Experience had flown away in the big black car.

“That was Urizen,” said Mr Blake. “How the mighty have fallen! He cuts a sad figure now. Despair is eating him.”

“We were lucky he didn't see us,” said Dora.

“I think he did see us,” said Mr Blake. “But he is so taken up with his own concerns that he blocked us out. That is how his mind works now. And to think he was once the prince of light, the clearest-sighted of all!”

“He's on his way to get the box,” said Adam.

“What are we going to do?” said Dora.

“We must either follow him, or wait here for him to return,” said Mr Blake.

“I think we'd better follow him,” said Adam. “Come on.”

The automatic door hissed open as they approached it, to reveal a white passage leading off to their left, with another door on the right at the other end, through which Urizen was just disappearing.

They hurried down the passage and into the next room.

Right in front of them was a wall of glass, showing a view of the city from high above: dark buildings, glittering streets, strings of headlights and tail-lights, multicoloured Christmas decorations, and the river, gleaming like an oily snake. Above it all hung the full moon, low in the sky and yellow, shining through a gap in the clouds.

In the middle of the room was a square conference-table, surrounded by chairs, seven chairs to each side. On their side of the conference-table stood Urizen, as still as a statue. On the far side of it stood the Queen of the Night, and Dora's box was in her hands.