Babel's Children

By Clive Barker.

Why could Vanessa never resist the road that had no signpost marking it; the track that led to God alone knew where? Her enthusiasm for following her nose had got her into trouble often enough in the past. A near-fatal night spent lost in the Alps; that episode in Marrakech that had almost ended in rape; the adventure with the sword-swallower's apprentice in the wilds of Lower Manhattan. And yet despite what bitter experience should have taught her, when the choice lay between the marked route and the unmarked, she would always, without question, take the latter.

Here, for instance. This road that meandered towards the coast of Kithnos: what could it possibly offer her but an uneventful drive through the scrub land hereabouts - a chance encounter with a goat along the way - and a view from the cliffs of the blue Aegean. She could enjoy such a view from her hotel at Merikha Bay, and scarcely get out of bed to do so. But the other highways that led from this crossroads were so clearly marked: one to Loutra, with its ruined Venetian fort, the other to Driopis. She had visited neither village, and had heard that both were charming, but the fact that they were so clearly named seriously marred their attraction for her. This other road, however, though it might - indeed probably did - lead nowhere, at least led to an unnamed nowhere. That was no small recommendation. Thus fuelled by sheer perversity, she set off along it.

The landscape to either side of the road (or, as it rapidly became, track) was at best undistinguished. Even the goats she had anticipated were not in evidence here, but then the sparse vegetation looked less than nourishing. The island was no paradise. Unlike Santorini, with its picturesque volcano, or Mykonos - the Sodom of the Cyclades -with its plush beaches and plusher hotels Kithnos could boast nothing that might draw the tourist. That, in short, was why she was here: as far from the crowd as she could conspire to get. This track, no doubt, would take her further still.

The cry she heard from the hillocks off to her left was not meant to be ignored. It was a cry of naked alarm, and it was perfectly audible above the grumbling of her hired car. She brought the ancient vehicle to a halt, and turned off the engine. The cry came again, but this time it was followed by a shot, and a space, then a second shot. Without thinking, she opened the car door and stepped out onto the track. The air was fragrant with sand lilies and wild thyme - scents which the petrol-stench inside the car had effectively masked. Even as she breathed the perfume she heard a third shot, and this time she saw a figure - too far from where she stood to be recognizable, even if it had been her husband - mounting the crown of one of the hillocks, only to disappear into a trough again. Three or four beats later, and his pursuers appeared. Another shot was fired; but, she was relieved to see, into the air rather than at the man. They were warning him to stop rather than aiming to kill. The details of the pursuers were as indistinct as those of the escapee except that - an ominous touch -they were dressed from head to foot in billowing black garb.

She hesitated at the side of the car, not certain of whether she should get back in and drive away or go and find out what this hide-and-seek was all about. The sound of guns was not particularly pleasant, but could she possibly turn her back on such a mystery? The men in black had disappeared after their quarry, but she pinned her eyes to the spot they had left, and started off towards it, keeping her head down as best she could.

Distances were deceptive in such unremarkable terrain; one sandy hillock looked much like the next. She picked her way amongst the squirting cucumber for fully ten minutes before she became certain that she had missed the spot from which pursued and pursuer had vanished - and by that time she was lost in a sea of grass-crested knolls. The cries had long since ceased, the shots too.

She was left only with the sound of gulls, and the rasping debate of cicadas around her feet.

'Damn,' she said. 'Why do I do these things?' She selected the largest hillock in the vicinity and trudged up its flank, her feet uncertain in the sandy soil, to see if the vantage-point offered a view of the track she'd left, or even of the sea. If she could locate the cliffs, she could orient herself relative to the spot on which she'd left the car, and head off in that approximate direction, knowing that sooner or later she'd be bound to reach the track. But the hummock was too puny; all that was revealed from its summit was the extent of her isolation. In every direction, the same indistinguishable hills, raising their backs to the afternoon sun. In desperation, she licked her finger and put it up to the wind, reasoning that the breeze would most likely be off the sea, and that she might use that slender information to base her mental cartography upon. The breeze was negligible, but it was the only guide she had, and she set off in the direction she hoped the track lay.

After five increasingly breathless minutes of tramping up and down the hillocks, she scaled one of the slopes and found herself looking not upon her car but at a cluster of white-washed buildings -dominated by a squat tower and ringed like a garrison with a high wall - which her previous perches had given her no glimpse of. It immediately occurred to her that the running man and his three over-attentive admirers had originated here, and that wisdom probably counselled against approaching the place. But then without directions from somebody might she not wander around forever in this wasteland and never find her way back to the car? Besides, the buildings looked reassuringly unpretentious. There was even a hint of foliage peeping above the bright walls that suggested a sequestered garden within, where she might at least get some shade. Changing direction, she headed towards the entrance.

She arrived at the wrought-iron gates exhausted. Only when in sight of comfort would she concede the weight of her weariness to herself: the trudge across the hillocks had reduced her thighs and shins to quivering incompetence.

One of the large gates was ajar, and she stepped through. The yard beyond was paved, and mottled with doves' droppings: several of the culprits sat in a myrtle tree and cooed at her appearance. From the yard several covered walkways led off into a maze of buildings. Her perversity unchastened by adventure, she followed the one that looked least promising and it led her out of the sun and into a balmy passage, lined with plain benches, and out the other side into a smaller enclosure. Here the sun fell upon one of the walls, in a niche of which stood a statue of the Virgin Mary - her notorious child, fingers raised in blessing, perched upon her arm. And now, seeing the statue, the pieces of this mystery fell into place: the secluded location, the silence, the plainness of the yards and walkways - this was surely a religious establishment.

She had been godless since early adolescence, and had seldom stepped over the threshold of a church in the intervening twenty-five years. Now, at forty- one, she was past recall, and so felt doubly a trespasser here. But then she wasn't seeking sanctuary, was she?; merely directions. She could ask them, and get gone.

As she advanced across the sunlit stone she had that curious sensation of self-consciousness which she associated with being spied upon. It was a sensitivity her life with Ronald had sophisticated into a sixth sense. His ridiculous jealousies, which had, only three months previous, ended their marriage, had led him to spying strategies that would not have shamed the agencies of Whitehall or Washington. Now she felt not one, but several pairs of eyes upon her. Though she squinted up at the narrow windows that overlooked the courtyard, and seemed to see movement at one of them, nobody made any effort to call down to her, however. A mute order, perhaps, their vow of silence so profoundly observed that she would have to communicate in sign- language? Well, so be it.

Somewhere behind her, she heard running feet; several pairs, rushing towards her. And from down the walkway, the sound of the iron gates clanging closed. For some reason her heart-beat tripped over itself, and alarmed her blood. Startled, it leapt to her face. Her weakened legs began to quiver again.

She turned to face the owners of those urgent footsteps, and as she did so caught sight of the stone Virgin's head moving a fraction. Its blue eyes had followed her across the yard, and now were unmistakably following her back.

She stood stock still; best not to run, she thought, with Our Lady at your back. It would have done no good to have taken flight anyway, because even now three nuns were appearing from out of the shadow of the cloisters, their vestments billowing. Only their beards, and the gleaming automatic rifles they carried, fractured the illusion of their being Christ's brides. She might have laughed at this incongruity, but that they were pointing their weapons straight at her heart.

There was no word of explanation offered; but then in a place that harboured armed men dressed as nuns a glimpse of sweet reason was doubtless as rare as feathered frogs.

She was bundled out of the courtyard by the three holy sisters -who treated her as though she had just razed the Vatican - and summarily searched her high and low. She took this invasion without more than a cursory objection. Not for a moment did they take their rifle-sights off her, and in such circumstances obedience seemed best. Search concluded, one of them invited her to re-dress, and she was escorted to a small room and locked in. A little while later, one of the nuns brought her a bottle of palatable retsina, and, to complete this catalogue of incongruities, the best deep-dish pizza she'd had this side of Chicago. Alice, lost in Wonderland, could not have thought it curiouser.

There may have been an error,' the man with the waxed moustache conceded after several hours of interrogation. She was relieved to discover he had no desire to pass as an Abbess, despite the garb of the garrison. His office - if such it was - was sparsely furnished, its only remarkable artifact a human skull, its bottom jaw missing, which sat on the desk and peered vacuously at her. He himself was better dressed; his bow-tie immaculately tied, his trousers holding a lethal crease. Beneath his calculated English, Vanessa thought she sniffed the hint of an accent. French? German? It was only when he produced some chocolate from his desk that she decided he was Swiss. His name, he claimed, was Mr Klein.

'An error?' she said. 'You're damn right there's been an error!' 'We've located your car. We have also checked with your hotel. So far, your story has been verified.' 'I'm not a liar,' she said. She was well past the point of courtesy with Mr Klein, despite his bribes with the confectionery. By now it must be late at night, she guessed, though as she wore no watch and the bald little room, which was in the bowels of one of the buildings, had no windows, it was difficult to be certain. Time had been telescoped with only Mr Klein, and his undernourished Number Two, to hold her wearied attention. 'Well I'm glad you're satisfied,' she said, 'Now will you let me get back to my hotel? I'm tired.' Klein shook his head. 'No,' he said. Tm afraid that won't be possible.' Vanessa stood up quickly, and the violence of her movement overturned the chair. Within a second of the sound the door had opened and one of the bearded sisters appeared, pistol at the ready.

'It's all right, Stanislaus,' Mr Klein purred, 'Mrs Jape hasn't slit my throat.' Sister Stanislaus withdrew, and closed the door behind him. 'Why?' said Vanessa, her anger distracted by the appearance of the guard.

'Why what?' Mr Klein asked. The nuns.' Klein sighed heavily, and put his hand on the coffee-pot that had been brought a full hour earlier, to see if it was still warm. He poured himself half a cup before replying. 'In my own opinion, much of this is redundant, Mrs Jape, and you have my personal assurance that I will see you released as rapidly as is humanly possible. In the meanwhile I beg your indulgence. Think of it as a game . . .' His face soured slightly.'... They like games.' 'Who do?' Klein frowned. 'Never mind,' he said. 'The less you know the less we'll have to make you forget.' Vanessa gave the skull a beady eye. 'None of this makes any sense,' she said.

'Nor should it,' Mr Klein replied. He paused to sip his stale coffee. 'You made a regrettable error in coming here, Mrs Jape. And indeed, we made an error letting you in. Normally, our defences are stricter than you found them.

But you caught us off-guard... and the next thing we knew -' 'Look,' said Vanessa, 'I don't know what's going on here. I don't want to know. All I want is to be allowed to go back to my hotel and finish my holiday in peace.' Judging by the expression on her interrogator's face, her appeal was not proving persuasive. 'Is that so much to ask?' she said. 'I haven't done anything, I haven't seen anything. What's the problem?' Mr Klein stood up.

'The problem,' he repeated quietly to himself. 'Now there's a question.' He didn't attempt to answer, however. Merely called: 'Stanislaus?' The door opened, and the nun was there.

'Return Mrs Jape to her room, will you?' 'I shall protest to my Embassy!' Vanessa said, her resentment flaring. 'I have rights!' 'Please,' said Mr Klein, looking pained. 'Shouting will help none of us.' The nun took hold of Vanessa's arm. She felt the proximity of his pistol.

'Shall we go?" he asked politely.

'Do I have any choice?' she replied.

'No.' The trick of good farce, she had once been informed by her brother-in-law, a sometime actor, was that it be played with deadly seriousness. There should be no sly winks to the gallery, signalling the farceur's comic intention; no business that was so outrageous it would undermine the reality of the piece.

By these stringent standards she was surrounded by a cast of experts: all willing - habits, wimples and spying Madonnas notwithstanding - to perform as though this ridiculous situation was in no way out of the ordinary. Try as she might, she could not call their bluff; not break their po-faces, not win a single sign of self-consciousness from them. Clearly she lacked the requisite skills for this kind of comedy. The sooner they realized their error and discharged her from the company the happier she'd be.

She slept well, helped on her way by half the contents of a bottle of whisky that some thoughtful person had left in her little room when she returned to it. She had seldom drunk so much in such a short period of time, and when - just about dawn - she was woken by a light tapping on her door, her head felt swollen, and her tongue like a suede glove. It took her a moment to orient herself, during which time the rapping was repeated, and the small window in the door opened from the other side. An urgent face was pressed to it: that of an old man, with a fungal beard and wild eyes. 'Mrs Jape,' he hissed. 'Mrs Jape. May we have words?' She crossed to the door and looked through the window. The old man's breath was two-parts stale ouzo to one of fresh air. It kept her from pressing too close to the window, though he beckoned her.

'Who are you?' Vanessa asked, not simply out of abstract curiosity, but because the features, sunburnt and leathery, reminded her of somebody.

The man gave her a fluttering look. 'An admirer,' he said. 'Do I know you?' He shook his head. 'You're much too young,' he said. 'But I know you. I watched you come in. I wanted to warn you, but I didn't have time.' 'Are you a prisoner here too?' 'In a manner of speaking. Tell me ... did you see Floyd?' 'Who?' 'He escaped. The day before yesterday.' 'Oh,' Vanessa said, beginning to thread these dropped pearls together.

'Floyd was the man they were chasing?' 'Certainly. He slipped out, you see. They went after him - the clods - and left the gate open. The security is shocking these days -' He sounded genuinely outraged by the situation.' - Not that I'm not pleased you're here.' There was some desperation in his eyes, she thought; some sorrow he fought to keep submerged. 'We heard shots,' he said. 'They didn't get him, did they?' 'Not that I saw,' Vanessa replied. 'I went to look. But there was no sign - ' 'Ha!' said the old man, brightening. 'Maybe he did get away then.' It had already occurred to Vanessa that this conversation might be a trap; that the old man was her captor's dupe, and this was just another way to squeeze information from her. But her instincts instructed otherwise. He looked at her with such affection, and his face, which was that of a maestro clown, seemed incapable of forged feeling. For better or worse, she trusted him. She had little choice.

'Help me get out,' she said. 'I have to get out.' He looked crest-fallen. 'So soon?' he said. 'You only just arrived.' 'I'm not a thief. I don't like being locked up.' He nodded. 'Of course you don't,' he replied, silently admonishing himself for his selfishness. 'I'm sorry. It's just that a beautiful woman - ' He stopped himself, then began again, on a fresh tack. 'I never had much of a way with words . . .' 'Are you sure I don't know you from somewhere?' Vanessa inquired. 'Your face is somehow familiar.' 'Really?' he said. 'That's very nice. We all think we're forgotten here, you see.' 'All?' 'We were snatched away such a time ago. Many of us were only beginning our researches. That's why Floyd made a run for it. He wanted to do a few months' decent work before the end. I feel the same sometimes.' His melancholy train halted, and he returned to her question. 'My name is Harvey Gomm; Professor Harvey Gomm. Though these days I forget what I was professor of.' Gomm. It was a singular name, and it rang bells, but she could at present find no tune in the chimes.

'You don't remember, do you?' he said, looking straight into her eyes.

She wished she could lie, but that might alienate the fellow - the only voice of sanity she'd discovered here - more than the truth; which was: 'No... I don't exactly remember. Maybe a clue?' But before he could offer her another piece of his mystery, he heard voices.

'Can't talk now, Mrs Jape.' 'Call me Vanessa.' 'May I?' His face bloomed in the warmth of her benificence. 'Vanessa.' 'You will help me?' she said.

'As best I may,' he replied. 'But if you see me in company -' ' - We never met.' 'Precisely. Au revoir.' He closed the panel in the door, and she heard his footsteps vanish down the corridor. When her custodian, an amiable thug called Guillemot, arrived several minutes later bearing a tray of tea, she was all smiles.

Her outburst of the previous day seemed to have born some fruit. That morning, after breakfast, Mr Klein called in briefly and told her that she would be allowed out into the grounds of the place (with Guillemot in attendance), so that she might enjoy the sun. She was further supplied with a new set of clothes - a little large for her, but a welcome relief from the sweaty garments she had now worn for over twenty-four hours. This last concession to her comfort was a curates' egg, however. Pleased as she was to be wearing clean underwear the fact that the clothes had been supplied at all suggested that Mr Klein was not anticipating a prompt release.

How long would it be, she tried to calculate, before the rather obtuse manager of her tiny hotel realized that she wasn't coming back; and in that event, what he would do? Perhaps he had already alerted the authorities; perhaps they would find the abandoned car and trace her to this curious fortress. On this last point her hopes were dashed that very morning, during her constitutional. The car was parked in the laurel-tree enclosure beside the gate, and to judge by the copious blessings rained upon it by the doves had been there overnight. Her captors were not fools. She might have to wait until somebody back in England became concerned, and attempted to trace her whereabouts, during which time she might well die of boredom.

Others in the place had found diversions to keep them from insanity's door.

As she and Guillemot wandered around the grounds that morning she could distinctly hear voices - one of them Gomm's - from a nearby courtyard. They were raised in excitement. 'What's going on?' 'They're playing games,' Guillemot replied.

'Can we go and watch?' she asked casually.

'No-' 'I like games.' 'Do you?' he said. 'We'll play then, eh?' This wasn't the response she'd wanted, but pressing the point might have aroused suspicion.

'Why not?' she said. Winning the man's trust could only be to her advantage.

'Poker?' he said.

'I've never played.' 'I'll teach you,' he replied. The thought clearly pleased him. In the adjacent courtyard the players now sent up a din of shouts. It sounded to be some kind of race, to judge by the mingled calls of encouragement, and the subsequent deflation as the winning-post was achieved. Guillemot caught her listening.

'Frogs,' he said. 'They're racing frogs.' 'I wondered.' Guillemot looked at her almost fondly, and said, 'Better not.' Despite Guillemot's advice, once her attention focussed on the sound of the games she could not drive the din from her head. It continued through the afternoon, rising and falling. Sometimes laughter would erupt; as often, there would arguments. They were like children, Gomm and his friends, the way they fought over such an inconsequential pursuit as racing frogs. But in lieu of more nourishing diversions, could she blame them? When Gomm's face appeared at the door later that evening, almost the first thing she said was: 'I heard you this morning, in one of the courtyards. And then this afternoon, too. You seemed to be having a good deal of fun.' 'Oh, the games,' Gomm replied. 'It was a busy day. So much to be sorted out.' 'Do you think you could persuade them to let me join you? I'm getting so bored in here.' 'Poor Vanessa. I wish I could help. But it's practically impossible. We're so overworked at the moment, especially with Floyd's escape.' Overworked?, she thought, racing frogs? Fearing to offend, she didn't voice the doubt. 'What's going on here?' she said. 'You're not criminals, are you?' Gomm looked outraged. 'Criminals?' 'I'm sorry . . .' 'No. I understand why you asked. I suppose it must strike you as odd . . .

our being locked up here. But no, we're not criminals.

'What then? What's the big secret?' Gomm took a deep breath before replying. 'If I tell you,' he said, 'will you help us to get out of here?' 'How?' 'Your car. It's at the front.' 'Yes, I saw it. . .' 'If we could get to it, would you drive us?' 'How many of you?' 'Four. There's me, there's Ireniya, there's Mottershead, and Goldberg. Of course Floyd's probably out there somewhere, but he'll just have to look after himself, won't he?' 'It's a small car,' she warned.

'We're small people,' Gomm returned. 'You shrink with age, you know, like dried fruit. And we're old. With Floyd we had three hundred and ninety-eight years between us. All that bitter experience,' he said, 'and not one of us wise.' In the yard outside Vanessa's room shouting suddenly erupted. Gomm disappeared from the door, and reappeared again briefly to murmur: 'They found him. Oh my God: they found him.' Then he fled.

Vanessa crossed to the window and peered through. She could not see much of the yard below, but what she could see was full of frenzied activity, sisters hithering and thithering. At the centre of this commotion she could see a small figure - the runaway Floyd, no doubt - struggling in the grip of two guards. He looked to be much the worse for his days and nights of living rough, his drooping features dirtied, his balding pate peeling from an excess of sun. Vanessa heard the voice of Mr Klein rise above the babble, and he stepped into the scene. He approached Floyd and proceeded to berate him mercilessly. Vanessa could not catch more than one in every ten words, but the verbal assault rapidly reduced the old man to tears. She turned away from the window, silently praying that Klein would choke on his next piece of chocolate.

So far, her time here had brought a curious collection of experiences: one moment pleasant (Gomm's smile, the pizza, the sound of games played in a similar courtyard), the next - (the interrogation, the bullying she'd just witnessed) unpalatable. And still she was no nearer understanding what the function of this prison was: why it only had five inmates (six, if she included herself) and all so old -shrunk by age, Gomm had said. But after Klein's humiliation of Floyd she was now certain that no secret, however pressing, would keep her from aiding Gomm in his bid for freedom.

The Professor did not come back that evening, which disappointed her.

Perhaps Floyd's recapture had meant stricter regulations about the place, she reasoned, though that principle scarcely applied to her. She, it seemed, was practically forgotten. Though Guillemot brought her food and drink he did not stay to teach her poker as they had arranged, nor was she escorted out to take the air. Left in the stuffy room without company, her mind undisturbed by any entertainment but counting her toes, she rapidly became listless and sleepy.

Indeed, she was dozing through the middle of the afternoon when something hit the wall outside the window. She got up, and was crossing to see what the sound was when an object was hurled through the window. It landed with a clunk on the floor. She went to snatch a glimpse of the sender, but he'd gone.

The tiny parcel was a key wrapped in a note. 'Vanessa,' it read, 'Be ready.

Yours, in saecula saeculorum. H.G.' Latin was not her forte; she hoped the final words were an endearment, not an instruction. She tried the key in the door of her cell. It worked. Clearly Gomm didn't intend her to use it now, however, but to wait for some signal. Be ready, he'd written. Easier said than done, of course. It was so tempting, with the door open and the passageway out to the sun clear, to forget Gomm and the others and make a break for it. But H.G. had doubtless taken some risk acquiring the key. She owed him her allegiance.

After that, there was no more dozing. Every time she heard a footstep in the cloisters, or a shout in the yard, she was up and ready. But Gomm's call didn't come. The afternoon dragged on into evening. Guillemot appeared with another pizza and a bottle of coca-cola for dinner, and before she knew it night had fallen and another day was gone.

Perhaps they would come by cover of darkness, she thought, but they didn't.

The moon rose, its seas smirking, and there was still no sign of H.G. or this promised exodus. She began to suspect the worst: that their plan had been discovered, and they were all being punished for it. If so, would not Mr Klein sooner or later root out her involvement? Though her part had been minimal, what sanctions might the chocolate-man take out against her? Sometime after midnight she decided that waiting here for the axe to fall was not her style at all, and she would be wise to do as Floyd had done, and run for it.

She let herself out of the cell, and locked it behind her, then hurried along the cloisters, cleaving to the shadows as best she could. There was no sign of human presence - but she remembered the watchful Virgin, who'd first spied on her. Nothing was to be trusted here. By stealth and sheer good fortune she eventually found her way out into the yard in which Floyd had faced Mr Klein. There she paused, to work out which way the exit lay from here. But clouds had moved across the face of the moon, and in darkness her fitful sense of direction deserted her completely. Trusting to the luck that had got her thus far unarrested, she chose one of the exits from the yard, and slipped through it, following her nose along a covered walkway which twisted and turned before leading out into yet another courtyard, larger than the first. A light breeze teased the leaves of two entwined laurel-trees in the centre of the yard; night-insects tuned up in the walls. Peaceable as it was, the square offered no promising route that she could see, and she was about to go back the way she'd come when the moon shook off its veils and lit the yard from wall to wall.

It was empty, but for the laurel-trees, and the shadow of the laurel-trees, but that shadow fell across an elaborate design which had been painted onto the pavement of the yard. She stared at it, too curious to retreat, though she could make no sense of the thing at first; the pattern seemed to be just that: a pattern. She stalked it along one edge, trying to fathom out its significance. Then it dawned on her that she was viewing the entire picture upside-down. She moved to the other side of the courtyard and the design came clear. It was a map of the world, reproduced down to the most insignificant isle. All the great cities were marked and the oceans and continents crisscrossed with hundreds of fine lines that marked latitudes, longitudes and much else besides. Though many of the symbols were idiosyncratic, it was clear that the map was rife with political detail. Contested borders; territorial waters; exclusion zones. Many of these had been drawn and re-drawn in chalk, as if in response to daily intelligence. In some regions, where events were particularly fraught, the land-mass was all but obscured by scribblings.

Fascination came between her and her safety. She didn't hear the footsteps at the North Pole until their owner was stepping out of hiding and into the moonlight. She was about to make a run for it, when she recognized Gomm.

'Don't move,' he murmured across the world.

She did as she was instructed. Glancing around him like a besieged rabbit until he was certain the yard was deserted, H.G. crossed to where Vanessa stood.

'What are you doing here?' he demanded of her.

'You didn't come,' she accused him. 'I thought you'd forgotten me.' Things got difficult. They watch us all the time.' 'I couldn't go on waiting, Harvey. This is no place to take a holiday.' 'You're right, of course,' he said, a picture of dejection. 'It's hopeless.

Hopeless. You should make your getaway on your own. Forget about us. They'll never let us out. The truth's too terrible.' 'What truth?' He shook his head. 'Forget about it. Forget we ever met.' Vanessa took hold of his spindly arm. 'I will not,' she said. 'I have to know what's happening here.' Gomm shrugged. 'Perhaps you should know. Perhaps the whole world should know.' He took her hand, and they retreated into the relative safety of the cloisters.

'What's the map for?' was her first question.

This is where we play - ' he replied, staring at the turmoil of scrawlings on the courtyard floor. He sighed. 'Of course it wasn't always games. But systems decay, you know. It's an irrefutable condition common to both matter and ideas. You start off with fine intentions and in two decades . . . two decades..." he repeated, as if the fact appalled him afresh,'. . . we're playing with frogs.' 'You're not making much sense, Harvey," Vanessa said. 'Are you being deliberately obtuse or is this senility?' He prickled at the accusation, but it did the trick. Gaze still fixed on the map of the world, he delivered the next words crisply as if he'd rehearsed this confession.

There was a day of sanity, back in 1962, in which it occurred to the potentates that they were on the verge of destroying the world. Even to potentates the idea of an earth only fit for cockroaches was not particularly beguiling. If annihilation was to be prevented, they decided, our better instincts had to prevail. The mighty gathered behind locked doors at a symposium in Geneva. There had never been such a meeting of minds. The leaders of Politburos and Parliaments, Congresses, Senates - the Lords of the earth - in one colossal debate. And it was decided that in future world affairs should be overseen by a special committee, made up of great and influential minds like my own - men and women who were not subject to the whims of political favour, who could offer some guiding principles to keep the species from mass suicide. This committee was to be made up of people in many areas of human endeavour - the best of the best - an intellectual and moral elite, whose collective wisdom would bring a new golden age. That was the theory anyway Vanessa listened, without voicing the hundred questions his short speech had so far brought to mind. Gomm went on.

' - and for a while, it worked. It really worked. There were only thirteen of us - to keep some consensus. A Russian, a few of us Europeans - dear Yoniyoko, of course - a New Zealander, a couple of Americans ... we were a high-powered bunch. Two Nobel prize winners, myself included -' Now she remembered Gomm, or at least where she'd once seen that face. They had both been much younger. She a schoolgirl, taught his theories by rote.

' - our brief was to encourage mutual understanding between the powers- that-be, help shape compassionate economic structures and develop the cultural identity of emergent nations. All platitudes, of course, but they sounded fine at the time. As it was, almost from the beginning our concerns were territorial.' Territorial?' Gomm made an expansive gesture, taking in the map in front of him. 'Helping to divide the world up,' he said. 'Regulating little wars so they didn't become big wars, keeping dictatorships from getting too full of themselves. We became the world's domestics, cleaning up wherever the dirt got too thick. It was a great responsibility, but we shouldered it quite happily. It rather pleased us, at the beginning, to think that we thirteen were shaping the world, and that nobody but the highest eschelons of government knew that we even existed.' This, thought Vanessa, was the Napoleon Syndrome writ large. Gomm was indisputably insane: but what an heroic insanity! And it was essentially harmless. Why did they have to lock him up? He surely wasn't capable of doing damage.

'It seems unfair,' she said, 'that you're locked away in here -' 'Well that's for our own security, of course,' Gomm replied. 'Imagine the chaos if some anarchist group found out where we operated from, and did away with us. We run the world. It wasn't meant to be that way, but as I said, systems decay. As time went by the potentates - knowing they had us to make critical decisions for them - concerned themselves more and more with the pleasures of high office and less and less with thinking. Within five years we were no longer advisers, but surrogate overlords, juggling nations.' 'What fun,' Vanessa said.

'For a while, perhaps,' Gomm replied. 'But the glamour faded very quickly.

And after a decade or so, the pressure began to tell. Half of the committee are already dead. Golovatenko threw himself out of a window. Buchanan - the New Zealander - had syphilis and didn't know it. Old age caught up with dear Yoniyoko, and Bernheimer and Sourbutts. It'll catch up with all of us sooner or later, and Klein keeps promising to provide people to take over when we've gone, but they don't care. They don't give a damn! We're functionaries, that's all.' He was getting quite agitated. 'As long as we provide them with judgements, they're happy. Well. . .' his voice dropped to a whisper, 'we're giving it up.' Was this a moment of self-realization?, Vanessa wondered. Was the sane man in Gomm's head attempting to throw off the fiction of world domination? If so, perhaps she could aid the process.

'You want to get away?' she said.

Gomm nodded. 'I'd like to see my home once more before I die. I've given up so much, Vanessa, for the committee, and it almost drove me mad -' Ah, she thought, he knows. 'Does it sound selfish if I say that my life seems too great a sacrifice to make for global peace?' She smiled at his pretensions to power, but said nothing. 'If it does, it does! I'm unrepentant. I want out! I want -' 'Keep your voice down,' she advised.

Gomm remembered himself, and nodded.

'I want a little freedom before I die. We all do. And we thought you could help us, you see.' He looked at her. 'What's wrong?' he said.

'Wrong?' 'Why are you looking at me like that?' 'You're not well, Harvey. I don't think you're dangerous, but -' 'Wait a minute,' Gomm said. 'What do you think I've been telling you? I go to all this trouble . . .' 'Harvey. It's a fine story . . .' 'Story? What do you mean, story?' he said, petulantly. 'Oh ... I see. 'You don't believe me, do you? That's it! I just told you the greatest secret in the world, and you don't believe me!' 'I'm not saying you're lying -' 'Is that it?' You think I'm a lunatic!' Gomm exploded. His voice echoed around the rectangular world. Almost immediately there were voices from several of the buildings, and fast upon those the thunder of feet.

'Now look what you've done,' Gomm said.

'I've done?' 'We're in trouble.' 'Look, H.G., this doesn't mean -' Too late for retractions. You stay where you are - I'm going to make a run for it. Distract them.' He was about to depart when he turned back to her, caught hold of her hand, and put it to his lips.

'If I'm mad,' he said, 'you made me that way.' Then he was off, his short legs carrying him at a fair speed across the yard. He did not even reach the laurel-trees however, before the guards arrived. They shouted for him to stop. When he failed to do so one of the men fired. Bullets ploughed the ocean around Gomm's feet.

'All right,' he yelled, coming to halt and putting his hands in the air.

'Mea culpa!' The firing stopped. The guards parted as their commander stepped through.

'Oh, it's you, Sidney,' H. G. said to the Captain. The man visibly flinched to be so addressed in front of inferior ranks.

'What are you doing out at this time of night?' Sidney demanded.

'Star-gazing,' Gomm replied.

'You weren't alone,' the Captain said. Vanessa's heart sank. There was no route back to her room without crossing the open courtyard; and even now, with the alarm raised, Guillemot would probably be checking on her.

That's true,' said Gomm. 'I wasn't alone.' Had she offended the old man so much he was now going to betray her? 'I saw the woman you brought in -' 'Where?' 'Climbing over the wall,' he said.

'Jesus wept!' the Captain said, and swung around to order his men in pursuit.

'I said to her,' Gomm was prattling. 'I said, you'll break your neck climbing over the wall. You'd be better waiting until they open the gate -' Open the gate. He wasn't such a lunatic, after all. Phillipenko - ' the Captain said,' - escort Harvey back to his dormitory -' Gomm protested. 'I don't need a bed-time story, thank you.' 'Go with him.' The guard crossed to H. G. and escorted him away. The Captain lingered long enough to murmur, 'Who's a clever boy, Sidney?' under his breath, then followed. The courtyard was empty again, but for the moonlight, and the map of the world.

Vanessa waited until every last sound had died, and then slipped out of hiding, taking the route the dispatched guards had followed. It led her, eventually, into an area she vaguely recognized from her walk with Guillemot.

Encouraged, she hurried on along a passageway which let out into the yard with Our Lady of the Electric Eyes. She crept along the wall, and ducked beneath the statue's gaze and out, finally, to meet the gates. They were indeed open.

As the old man had protested when they'd first met, security was woefully inadequate, and she thanked God for it.

As she ran towards the gates she heard the sound of boots on the gravel, and glanced over her shoulder to see the Captain, rifle in hand, stepping from behind the tree.

'Some chocolate, Mrs Jape?' said Mr Klein.

This is a lunatic asylum,' she told him when they had escorted her back to the interrogation room. 'Nothing more nor less. You've no right to hold me here.' He ignored her complaints.

'You spoke to Gomm,' he said, 'and he to you.' 'What if he did?' 'What did he tell you?' 'I said: what if he did?' 'And I said: what did he tell you? Klein roared. She would not have guessed him capable of such apoplexy. 'I want to know, Mrs Jape.' Much against her will she found herself shaking at his outburst.

'He told me nonsense,' she replied. 'He's insane. I think you're all insane.' 'What nonsense did he tell you?' 'It was rubbish.' 'I'd like to know, Mrs Jape,' Klein said, his fury abating. 'Humour me.' 'He said there was some kind of committee at work here, that made decisions about world politics, and that he was one of them. That was it, for what it's worth.' 'And?' 'And I gently told him he was out of his mind.' Mr Klein forged a smile. 'Of course, this is a complete fiction,' he said.

'Of course,' said Vanessa. 'Jesus Christ, don't treat me like an imbecile, Mr Klein. I'm a grown woman -' 'Mr Gomm -' 'He said he was a professor.' 'Another delusion. Mr Gomm is a paranoid schizophrenic. He can be extremely dangerous, given half a chance. You were pretty lucky.' 'And the others?' 'Others?' 'He's not alone. I've heard them. Are they all schizophrenics?' Klein sighed. 'They're all deranged, though their conditions vary. And in their time, unlikely as it may seem, they've all been killers.' He paused to allow this information to sink in. 'Some of them multiple killers. That's why they have this place to themselves, hidden away. That's why the officers are armed -' Vanessa opened her mouth to ask why they were required to masquerade as nuns, but Klein was not about to give her an opportunity.

'Believe me, it's as inconvenient for me as it is irritating for you to be here,' he said.

'Then let me go.' 'When my investigations are complete,' he said. 'In the meanwhile your cooperation would be appreciated. If Mr Gomm or any of the other patients tries to co-opt you into some plan or other, please report them to me immediately. Will you do that?' 'I suppose -' 'And please refrain from any further escape attempts. The next one could prove fatal.' 'I wanted to ask -' 'Tomorrow, maybe,' Mr Klein said, glancing at his watch as he stood up.

'For now: sleep.' Which, she debated with herself when that sleep refused to come, of all the routes to the truth that lay before her, was the unlikeliest path? She had been given several alternatives: by Gomm, by Klein, by her own common sense.

All of them were temptingly improbable. All, like the path that had brought her here, unmarked as to their final destination. She had suffered the consequence of her perversity in following that track of course; here she was, weary and battered, locked up with little hope of escape. But that perversity was her nature - perhaps, as Ronald had once said, the one indisputable fact about her. If she disregarded that instinct now, despite all it had brought her to, she was lost. She lay awake, turning the available alternatives over in her head. By morning she had made up her mind.

She waited all day, hoping Gomm would come, but she wasn't surprised when he failed to show. It was possible that events of the previous evening had landed him in deeper trouble than even he could talk his way out of. She was not left entirely to herself however. Guillemot came and went, with food, with drink and - in the middle of the afternoon - with playing cards. She picked up the gist of five-card poker quite rapidly, and they passed a contented hour or two playing, while the air carried shouts from the courtyard where the bedlamites were racing frogs.

'Do you think you could arrange for me to have a bath, or at least a shower?' she asked him when he came back for her dinner tray that evening.

'It's getting so that I don't like my own company.' He actually smiled as he responded. 'I'll find out for you.' 'Would you?' she gushed. 'That's very kind.' He returned an hour later to tell her that dispensation had been sought and granted; would she like to accompany him to the showers? 'Are you going to scrub my back?' she casually enquired.

Guillemot's eyes flickered with panic at the remark, and his ears flushed beetroot red. 'Please follow me,' he said. Obediently, she followed, trying to keep a mental picture of their route should she want to retrace it later, without her custodian.

The facilities he brought her to were far from primitive, and she regretted, walking into the mirrored bathroom, that actually washing was not high on her list of priorities. Never mind; cleanliness was for another day.

'I'll be outside the door,' Guillemot said.

'That's reassuring,' she replied, offering him a look she trusted he would interpret as promising, and closed the door. Then she ran the shower as hot as it would go, until steam began to cloud the room, and went down on her hands and knees to soap the floor. When the bathroom was sufficiently veiled and the floor sufficiently slick, she called Guillemot. She might have been flattered by the speed of his response, but she was too busy stepping behind him as he fumbled in the steam, and giving him a hefty push. He slid on the floor, and stumbled against the shower, yelping as scalding water met his scalp. His automatic rifle clattered to the floor, and by the time he was righting himself she had it in her hand, and pointed at his torso, a substantial target. Though she was no sharp-shooter, and her hands were trembling, a blind woman couldn't have missed at such a range; she knew it, and so did Guillemot.

He put his hands up.

'Don't shoot.' 'If you move a muscle -' 'Please . . . don't shoot.' 'Now . . . you're going to take me to Mr Gomm and the others. Quickly and quietly.' 'Why?' 'Just take me,' she said, gesturing with the rifle that he should lead the way out of the bathroom. 'And if you try to do anything clever, I'll shoot you in the back,' she said. 'I know it's not very manly, but then I'm not a man.

I'm just an unpredictable woman. So treat me very carefully.' '. . . yes.' He did as he was told, meekly, leading her out of the building and through a series of passageways which took them - or so she guessed - towards the bell-tower and the complex that clustered about it. She had always assumed this, the heart of the fortress, to be a chapel. She could not have been more wrong. The outer shell might be tiled roof and white-washed walls, but that was merely a facade; they stepped over the threshold into a concrete maze more reminiscent of a bunker than a place of worship. It briefly occurred to her that the place had been built to withstand a nuclear attack, an impression reinforced by the fact that the corridors all led down. If this was an asylum, it was built to house some rare lunatics.

'What is this place?' she asked Guillemot.

'We call it the Boudoir,' he said. 'It's where everything happens.' There was little happening at present; most of the offices off the corridors were in darkness. In one room a computer calculated its chances of independent thought, unattended; in another a telex machine wrote love-letters to itself. They descended into the bowels of the place unchallenged, until, rounding a corner, they came face to face with a woman on her hands and knees, scrubbing the linoleum. The encounter startled both parties, and Guillemot was swift to take the initiative. He knocked Vanessa sideways against the wall, and ran for it. Before she had time to get him in her sights, he was gone.

She cursed herself. It would be moments only before alarm bells started to ring, and guards came running. She was lost if she stayed where she was. The three exits from this hallway looked equally unpromising, so she simply made for the nearest, leaving the cleaner to stare after her. The route she took proved to be another adventure. It led her through a series of rooms, one of which was lined with dozens of clocks, all showing different times; the next of which contained upwards of fifty black telephones; the third and largest was lined on every side with television screens. They rose, one upon another, from floor to ceiling. All but one was blank. The exception to this rule was showing what she first took to be a mud-wrestling contest, but was in fact a poorly reproduced pornographic film. Sitting watching it, sprawled on a chair with a beer-can balanced on his stomach, was a moustachioed nun. He stood up as she entered: caught in the act. She pointed the rifle at him.

'I'm going to shoot you dead,' she told him.

'Shit.' 'Where's Gomm and the others?' 'What?' 'Where are they?' she demanded. 'Quickly? 'Down the hall. Turn left and left again,' he said. Then added, 'I don't want to die.' 'Then sit down and shut up,' she replied.

'Thank God,' he said.

'Why don't you?' she told him. As she backed out of the room he fell down on his knees, while the mud-wrestlers cavorted behind him.

Left and left again. The directions were fruitful: they led her to a series of rooms. She was just about to knock on one of the doors when the alarm sounded. Throwing caution to the wind she pushed all the doors open. Voices from within complained at being woken, and asked what the alarm was ringing for. In the third room she found Gomm. He grinned at her.

'Vanessa,' he said, bounding out into the corridor. He was wearing a long vest, and nothing else. 'You came, eh? You came!' The others were appearing from their rooms, bleary with sleep. Ireniya, Floyd, Mottershead, Goldberg. She could believe - looking at their raddled faces - that they indeed had four hundred years between them.

'Wake up, you old buggers,' Gomm said. He had found a pair of trousers and was pulling them on.

'The alarm's ringing - ' one commented. His hair, which was bright white, was almost at his shoulders.

'They'll be here soon -' Ireniya said.

'No matter,' Gomm replied.

Floyd was already dressed. 'I'm ready,' he announced.

'But we're outnumbered,' Vanessa protested. 'We'll never get out alive.' 'She's right,' said one, squinting at her. 'It's no use.' 'Shut up, Goldberg,' Gomm snapped. 'She's got a gun, hasn't she?' 'One,' said the white-haired individual. This must be Mottershead. 'One gun against all of them.' 'I'm going back to bed,' Goldberg said.

'This is a chance to escape,' Gomm said. 'Probably the only chance we'll ever get.' 'He's right,' the woman said.

'And what about the games?' Goldberg reminded them.

'Forget the games,' Floyd told the other, 'let them stew a while.' 'It's too late,' said Vanessa. 'They're coming.' There were shouts from both ends of the corridor. 'We're trapped.' 'Good,' said Gomm.

'You are insane,' she told him plainly.

'You can still shoot us,' he replied, grinning.

Floyd grunted. 'I don't want to get out of here that much,' he said.

'Threaten it! Threaten it!' Gomm said. 'Tell them if they try anything you'll shoot us all!' Ireniya smiled. She had left her teeth in her bedroom. 'You're not just a pretty face,' she said to Gomm.

'He's right,' said Floyd, beaming now. "They wouldn't dare risk us. They'll have to let us go.' 'You're out of your minds,' Goldberg muttered. 'There's nothing out there for us . . .' He returned into his room and slammed the door. Even as he did so the corridor was blocked off at either end by a mass of guards. Gomm took hold of Vanessa's rifle and raised it to point at his heart.

'Be gentle,' he hissed, and threw her a kiss.

'Put down the weapon, Mrs Jape,' said a familiar voice. Mr Klein had appeared amongst the throng of guards. Take it from me, you are completely surrounded.' 'I'll kill them all,' Vanessa said, a little hesitantly. Then again, this time with more feeling: 'I'm warning you. I'm desperate. I'll kill them all before you shoot me.' 'I see . . .' said Klein quietly. 'And why should you assume that I give a damn whether you kill them or not? They're insane. I told you that: all lunatics, killers . . .' 'We both know that isn't true,' said Vanessa, gaining confidence from the anxiety on Klein's face. 'I want the front gates opened, and the key in the ignition of my car. If you try anything stupid, Mr Klein, I will systematically shoot these hostages. Now dismiss your bully-boys and do as I say.' Mr Klein hesitated, then signalled a general withdrawal.

Gomm's eyes glittered. 'Nicely done,' he whispered.

'Why don't you lead the way?' Vanessa suggested. Gomm did as he was instructed, and her small party snaked their way out past the massed clocks and telephones and video screens. Every step they took Vanessa expected a bullet to find her, but Mr Klein was clearly too concerned for the health of the ancients to risk calling her bluff. They reached the open air without incident.

The guards were in evidence outside, though attempting to stay out of sight. Vanessa kept the rifle trained on the four captives as they headed through the yards to where her car was parked. The gates had been opened.

'Gomm,' she whispered. 'Open the car doors.' Gomm did so. He had said that age had shrunk them all, and perhaps that was true, but there were five of them to fit into the small vehicle, and it was tightly packed. Vanessa was the last to get in. As she ducked to slide into the driving seat a shot rang out, and she felt a blow to her shoulder. She dropped the rifle.

'Bastards,' said Gomm.

'Leave her,' somebody piped up in the back, but Gomm was already out of the car and bundling her into the back beside Floyd. He then slid into the driving seat himself and started the engine.

'Can you drive?' Ireniya demanded.

'Of course I can bloody drive!' he retorted, and the car jerked forward through the gates, the gears grating.

Vanessa had never been shot before, and hoped - if she survived this episode - to avoid it happening again. The wound in her shoulder was bleeding badly. Floyd did his best to staunch the wound, but Gomm's driving made any really constructive help practically impossible.

There's a track -' she managed to tell him, 'off that way.' 'Which way's that way? Gomm yelled.

'Right! Right!' she yelled back.

Gomm took both hands off the wheel and looked at them.

'Which is right? 'For Christ's sake-' Ireniya, in the seat beside him, pressed his hands back onto the wheel. The car performed a tarantella. Vanessa groaned with every bump.

'I see it!' said Gomm. 'I see the track!' He revved the car up, and put his foot on the accelerator.

One of the back doors, which had been inadequately secured, flipped open and Vanessa almost fell out. Mottershead, reaching over Floyd, yanked her back to safety, but before they could close the door it met the boulder that marked the convergence of the two tracks. The car bucked as the door was torn off its hinges.

'We needed more air in here,' said Gomm, and drove on.

Theirs was not the only engine disturbing the Aegean night. There were lights behind them, and the sound of hectic pursuit. With Guillemot's rifle left in the convent, they had no sudden death to bargain with, and Klein knew it.

'Step on it!' Floyd said, grinning from ear to ear. 'They're coming after us.' 'I'm going as fast as I can,' Gomm insisted.

Turn off the lights,' Ireniya suggested. 'It'll make us less of a target.' Then I won't be able to see the track,' Gomm complained over the roar of the engine.

'So what? You're not driving on it anyhow.' Mottershead laughed, and so - against her better instincts - did Vanessa.

Maybe the loss of blood was making her irresponsible, but she couldn't help herself. Four Methuselahs and herself in a three-door car driving around in the dark: only a madman would have taken this seriously. And there was the final and incontestible proof that these people weren't the lunatics Klein had marked them as, for they saw the humour in it too. Gomm had even taken to singing as he drove: snatches of Verdi, and a falsetto rendering of 'Over the Rainbow'.

And if - as her dizzied mind had concluded - these were creatures as sane as herself, then what of the tale that Gomm had told?; was that true too? Was it possible that Armageddon had been kept at bay by these few giggling geriatrics? They're gaining on us!' Floyd said. He was on his knees on the back seat, peering out of the window.

'We're not going to make it,' Mottershead observed, his laughter barely abating. 'We're all going to die.' 'There!' Ireniya yelled. There's another track! Try that! Try that!' Gomm swung the wheel, and the car almost tipped over as it swung off the main track and followed this new route. With the lights extinguished it was impossible to see more than a glimmer of the road ahead, but Gomm's style was not about to be cramped by such minor considerations. He revved the car until the engine fairly screeched. Dust was flung up and through the gap where the door had been; a goat fled from the path ahead seconds before losing its life.

'Where are we going?' Vanessa yelled.

'Haven't a clue,' Gomm returned. 'Have you? Wherever they were heading, they were going at a fair speed. This track was flatter than the one they'd left, and Gomm was taking full advantage of the fact. Again, he'd taken to singing.

Mottershead was leaning out of the window on the far side of the car, his hair streaming, watching for their pursuers.

'We're losing them!' he howled triumphantly. 'We're losing them!' A common exhilaration seized all the travellers now, and they began to sing along with H.G. They were singing so loudly that Gomm couldn't hear Mottershead inform him that the road ahead seemed to disappear. Indeed H.G.

was not aware that he had driven the car over the cliff until the vehicle took a nose-dive, and the sea came up to meet them.

'Mrs Jape? Mrs Jape?' Vanessa woke unwillingly. Her head hurt, her arm hurt. There had been some terrible times recently, though it took her a while to remember the substance of them. Then the memories came back. The car pitching over the cliff; the cold sea rushing in through the open door; the frantic cries around her as the vehicle sank. She had struggled free, only half conscious, vaguely aware that Floyd was floating up beside her. She had said his name, but he had not answered. She said it again, now.

'Dead,' said Mr Klein. They're all dead.' 'Oh my God,' she murmured. She was looking not at his face but at a chocolate stain on his waistcoat.

'Never mind them now,' he insisted.

'Never mind?' 'There's more important business, Mrs Jape. You must get up, and quickly.' The urgency in Klein's voice brought Vanessa to her feet. 'Is it morning?' she said. There were no windows in the room they occupied. This was the Boudoir, to judge by its concrete walls.

'Yes, it's morning,' Klein replied, impatiently. 'Now, will you come with me? I have something to show you.' He opened the door and they stepped out into the grim corridor. A little way ahead it sounded as if a major argument was going on; dozens of raised voices, imprecations and pleadings.

'What's happening?' They're warming up for the Apocalypse,' he replied, and led the way into the room where Vanessa had last seen the mud-wrestlers. Now all of the video- screens were buzzing, and each displayed a different interior. There were war- rooms and presidential suites, Cabinet Offices and Halls of Congress. In every one of them, somebody was shouting.

'You've been unconscious two full days,' Klein told her, as if this went some way to explaining the cacophony. Her head ached already. She looked from screen to screen: from Washington to Hamburg to Sydney to Rio de Janeiro.

Everywhere around the globe the mighty were waiting for news. But the oracles were dead.

They're just performers,' Klein said, gesturing at the shouting screens.

They couldn't run a three-legged race, never mind the world. They're getting hysterical, and they're button-fingers are starting to itch.' 'What am I supposed to do about it?' Vanessa returned. This tour of Babel depressed her. 'I'm no strategist.' 'Neither were Gomm and the others. They might have been, once upon a time, but things soon fell apart.' 'Systems decay,' she said.

'Isn't that the truth. By the time I came here half the committee were already dead. And the rest had lost all interest in their duties - ' 'But they still provided judgements, as H.G. said?' 'Oh yes.' They ruled the world?' 'After a fashion,' Klein replied.

'What do you mean: after a fashion?' Klein looked at the screens. His eyes seemed to be on the verge of spilling tears.

'Didn't he explain,? They played games, Mrs Jape. When they became bored with sweet reason and the sound of their own voices, they gave up debate and took to flipping coins.' 'No.' 'And racing frogs of course. That was always a favourite.' 'But the governments - ' she protested,' - surely they didn't just accept - ' 'You think they care?' Klein said, 'As long as they're in the public eye what does it matter to them what verbiage they're spouting, or how it was arrived at?' Her head spun. 'All chance?' she said.

'Why not? It has a very respectable tradition. Nations have fallen on decisions divined from the entrails of sheep.' 'It's preposterous.' 'I agree. But I ask you, in all honesty, is it many more terrifying than leaving the power in their hands?' He pointed to the rows of irate faces.

Democrats sweating that the morrow find them without causes to espouse or applause to win; despots in terror that without instruction their cruelties would lose favour and be overturned. One premier seemed to have suffered a bronchial attack and was being supported by two of his aides; another clutched a revolver and was pointing it at the screen, demanding satisfaction; a third was chewing his toupe. Were these the finest fruit of the political tree?; babbling, bullying, cajoling idiots, driven to apoplexy because nobody would tell them which way to jump? There wasn't a man or woman amongst them Vanessa would have trusted to guide her across the road.

'Better the frogs,' she murmured, bitter thought that it was.

The light in the courtyard, after the dead illumination of the bunker, was dazzlingly bright, but Vanessa was pleased to be out of earshot of the stridency within. They would find a new committee very soon, Klein had told her as they made their way out into the open air: it would be a matter of weeks only before equilibrium was restored. In the meanwhile, the earth could be blown to smithereens by the desperate creatures she had just seen. They needed judgements, and quickly.

'Goldberg is still alive,' Klein said. 'And he will go on with the games; but it takes two to play.' 'Why not you?' 'Because he hates me. Hates all of us. He says that he'll only play with you.' Goldberg was sitting under the laurel trees, playing patience. It was a slow business. His shortsightedness required him to bring each card to within three inches of his nose to read it, and by the time he had got to the end of the line he had forgotten those cards at the beginning.

'She's agreed,' said Klein. Goldberg didn't look up from his game. 'I said: she's agreed.' 'I'm blind, not deaf,' Goldberg told Klein, still perusing the cards. When he eventually looked up it was to squint at Vanessa. 'I told them it would end badly . . .' he said softly, and Vanessa knew that beneath this show of fatalism he felt the loss of his companions acutely.'. . . I said from the beginning, we were here to stay. No use to escape.' He shrugged, and returned to the cards. 'What's to escape to? The world's changed. I know. We changed it.' 'It wasn't so bad,' Vanessa said.

'The world?' They way they died.' 'Ah.' 'We were enjoying ourselves, until the last minute.' 'Gomm was such a sentimentalist,' Goldberg said. 'We never much liked each other.' A large frog jumped into Vanessa's path. The movement caught Goldberg's eye.

'Who is it?' he said.

The creature regarded Vanessa's foot balefully. 'Just a frog,' she replied.

'What does it look like?' 'It's fat,' she said. 'With three red dots on its back.' 'That's Israel,' he told her. 'Don't tread on him.' 'Could we have some decisions by noon?' Klein butted in. 'Particularly the Gulf situation, and the Mexican dispute, and -' 'Yes, yes, yes,' said Goldberg. 'Now go away.' ' - We could have another Bay of Pigs -' 'You're telling me nothing I don't know. Go! You're disturbing the nations.' He peered at Vanessa. 'Well, are you going to sit down or not?' She sat.

'I'll leave you to it.' Klein said, and retreated.

Goldberg had begun to make a sound in his throat - 'kek-kek-kek' -imitating the voice of a frog. In response, there came a croaking from every corner of the courtyard. Hearing the sound, Vanessa stifled a smile. Farce, she had told herself once before, had to be played with a straight face, as though you believed every outrageous word. Only tragedy demanded laughter; and that, with the aid of the frogs, they might yet prevent.