"Remind me again why we're here?" Samantha Bloom gazed around, seeing the crowds and hearing the sound of excited screaming. "Come to that, where exactly are we?"

"Last year's Superbowl." Evidently excited, Duncan was practically bouncing on his seat. "Sydney managed to program in the scenario. Isn't this cool?"

Samantha sighed. Her old friend could be a dreadful child at times; but then he hadn't had an accelerated childhood the way that she had. She couldn't remember the last time that she had felt truly excited about anything.

"But don't we know who won?" she asked. Sydney laughed.

"That's not the point. The point is being here." She looked around at the popcorn munching fans lining the stadium. "I wish we could eat popcorn. Or hotdogs."

"We should have made some before we started up the program." Duncan frowned. "Scratch that. I'd get mustard and ketchup all over the VR gloves."

"I'm beginning to understand why Sampson was so happy to stay behind." Samantha stared down at the game, with little enthusiasm. "Maybe I've got more in common with him than I thought."

"Oliver? He hates VR. He'd have stayed behind if we were going to watch the 1981 Ashes." Sydney giggled again. It was an infectious laugh, and one which Samantha had always enjoyed hearing as a child. She had missed it so much during the long years of their separation. She allowed herself to smile.

"I haven't watched a Superbowl in years," she said softly, more to herself than to anyone else. "There never seemed to be the time... and I don't think they show it in Eastern Germany."

"Bummer," Duncan told her, with distracted sympathy. "Well, see, it's simple. There are these teams, and one of them is--"

"Duncan." She glared at him, and he laughed. She took his hand. "I hate you, you know. Both of you. This is the kind of moment that I haven't missed at all."

"Glad to hear it." Sydney smiled at her, and she smiled back. The sudden cheering of the crowd interrupted their sentimental moment, and the silly smiles became laughs. Duncan whooped gleefully, punching the air with his hand.

"Alright!" he yelled. "Look at that!"

"Cool." Samantha leaned over the railing, staring down towards the game. She was happy for the first time in years. Finally things were starting to work in her favour.


Oliver Sampson leaned back in his chair, listening idly to the radio. It was tuned into a music station, and he was trying to decide if he liked it enough to keep it switched on, or if he could be at all bothered to turn it off. He toyed with the pages of the book on his lap, reading some of the words and skimming through others. It had been a long time since he had sat down to read a book properly. He found that he was too wired up to relax for long enough, and the words danced around inside his head without registering. He glanced across at his three companions, lost in their VR trip. They had been gone for some time already, having decided to watch their game in real time rather than the usual accelerated reality of VR.5. Their closeness and their evident excitability might have touched another man, but for Oliver it meant nothing. Other people were beings who crossed his path at times through necessity, and he kept his relations with them to a minimum. The only times that he had made exceptions to that rule, matters had ended cruelly; and now he was distancing himself even from these three Americans, who had come to depend upon him so much. His cold green eyes stared at them, largely unseeing.

"Well wasn't that a great song?" Interrupting the latest track halfway through in order to chatter inanely about how good it was, the radio DJ broke into Oliver's consciousness, and the Committee man stood up sharply, switching the little set off with an unnecessarily heavy hand. He wandered over to the window, gazing out into the car park. Yet another motel, yet another long, lonely road. They had all begun to blur, and he was tired of it. He wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere where perhaps, for a while, he could stop looking over his shoulder, and stop dragging his charges back onto the road the first time that some stranger looked at them too closely. Desert dust blew about outside the window, showering the glass with tiny stones. Everywhere looked bleak and empty; truly miserable; and Sampson sighed, wondering what his fellow Committee agents were up to right now. They were coming, he knew that much. As long as they stayed in the States, the Committee would be right behind them, somewhere over the last hill. Sydney was already marked for assassination, and doubtless her sister would be too. Duncan was expendable. Oliver was beginning to lose interest in what his own fate was to be. Why should he care? Nobody else did.

A sharp clatter outside the window snapped Sampson out of his miserable reverie, and he drew his gun through pure instinct, long before his mind could have processed a thought about the best course of action. He went to the door, moving with a silence skilled through long practice, and edged out into the whirling dust. He could see nothing beyond his own feet, but he could hear something moving around the corner of the building, and he was determined to discover what it was. He raised his gun, moving onwards, his ears alert for the slightest sound above the howling wind.


Sydney relaxed back in her seat, beginning to feel tired. It had been a long day, and the warmth of the sun and her own fatigue were beginning to conspire against her. She stifled a yawn.

"Excuse me miss?" The voice came from beside her, and she looked up into the bright, VR eyes of a man in an attendant's uniform. "I have a telephone call for you."

"For me?" She frowned. "My name is Sydney--"

"Sydney Bloom. Yes, miss, I know. The call is for you."

"Oh." She reached out, taking the portable phone from him, and nodding her thanks. As she put the receiver to her ear, the attendant's face seemed to change, and she tried to gasp. No sound would come, and above her Abernathy laughed in silent humour.


She was in a room; a large, dark room, which smelt odd. There was a damp feel to the air, and her breath caught in her throat, trying to make her cough. She quelled the reflex and peered about, trying to see where she was. Somebody else coughed, and she jumped violently.

"Hello?" she asked. Duncan's voice answered her, sounding weak.

"Syd? Syd, is that you?"

"Duncan?" She ran to him, kneeling down beside him. He looked drawn and pale, and his clothes were torn. They looked too large for him, as though his body had shrunk. "Duncan, what happened?"

"They caught us." His voice was faint, and she could feel his strength slipping away as she held him. "After you left us, they caught up. We were brought here..." His eyes moved, staring at something nearby, and she followed his train of vision. Samantha and her mother lay huddled together against the wall, their dead eyes sunken into faces that were too pale. Sydney gasped.

"No. No not Sam..."

"I'm sorry, Syd. I tried to keep her going, but I couldn't." Duncan's head fell back into the crook of her arm. "It's all over now, isn't it. Just like we always knew it would be one day. Now they've got you too..." His voice faded away, and his body went limp. She stared at him, horror-struck, then shook her head.

"No. No, Dunc, you have to open your eyes. Duncan!"

"He's dead. Leave him." The voice was Oliver's, and she turned to search him out with her eyes, staring into the gloom. He was sitting on the floor nearby, chained to the wall, and yet looking as healthy as ever. There was no sign in his face of the suffering that the others must have endured.

"You." She stood up, moving towards him. "Why are you here?"

"I don't know. Food for the beast?" He smiled. "I'm sorry, about your friends."

"Why didn't you help them?" She was angry with him for being there, for being alive; for being Oliver. He shrugged at her, and gestured to the chains.

"There was nothing I could do. I can't leave this place. I never could."

"It doesn't work that way, Oliver. You're supposed to try to escape." She turned away, staring at the bodies of her two companions. A feeling of dull emptiness filled her chest, and she wanted to cry. There was nothing to cry with.

"We always knew that this was going to happen." Oliver's voice was as level and as cold as always. We always knew that they'd catch us in the end."

"No." Her shoulders began to shake. "No we didn't." She knelt beside Duncan, shaking him, desperate to wake him up. "Duncan!"

"He's dead." Oliver's voice still carried no emotion, and she stared at him with hatred in her eyes. Her hands closed around a loose stone in the wall, and she stood up, turning back to the Committee man with one thought in her mind. Her hands shook, and she stumbled towards him, watching the emptiness in his dark green eyes. There was nothing there; no fear, no sorrow. Her hatred grew, and the world went white.


"Syd? Hey Syd!" Duncan was calling her, and she turned towards him automatically, the phone falling from her hand. She was dimly aware of the attendant picking it up and taking it away, and was even more dimly certain that he was once again just a nameless stranger. All trace of Abernathy had gone.

"Duncan?" Sydney grabbed him, and he saw the wild look in her eyes.

"Hey, Syd, take it easy. You just spoilt the whole Mexican wave. Welcome back to planet Earth."

"I want to go home, Duncan." She was fumbling for the release mechanism that she had built into the program.

"But I was just starting to enjoy myself." Samantha saw the look in her sister's face. "Syd? What's wrong?"

"I have to get out of here." Her fingers were like lead as she struggled to activate the Key. There was a moment of disorientation, and the world moved back into place.


"Syd? Are you alright?" Duncan pulled off his visor and knelt down. He tugged the visor from her eyes, frowning at her. "Come on, what's wrong?"

"I don't-- I--" She took a deep breath, and stared down at her hand. Held tightly there, damp and crumbling, was a loose stone, still marked with cement where it had fallen from a wall. She trembled, and Duncan took her shoulders.

"Syd?" he asked again, confused. She began to shake even harder, and the stone fell from her hand onto the floor.


"I don't understand. VR within VR? How could that be possible?" Oliver, pacing relentlessly, looked up. "It doesn't matter of course. Somebody must know where we are to have been able to pull it off. We have to leave."

"Leave?" Nora Bloom stared at him in amazement. "We only just got here!"

"Then we've already been here too long." Ceasing his pacing for a moment, Oliver saw the stone lying on the ground, and picked it up. "What about this?"

"That's just it. It's supposed to be impossible. How can I bring something from VR back to the real world? VR doesn't exist!" Sydney's voice was shaky. "It was all so real. So weird."

"Could somebody have sneaked into the room and put it in your hand?" Samantha asked. Nora nodded.

"Yes. Yes that could be it. I was asleep in the bedroom, and Oliver was outside, so somebody could have got in."

"I don't believe it." Oliver shook his head. "Nobody could have got in here. Have you seen what it's like out there? He'd have left footprints, or something. I was by the door, and he didn't get past me, which only leaves the windows. If you opened any window in here, everything would be covered in sand in a few seconds. Or do you think that our intruder stopped to clear up before he left?"

"I don't know what to think." Sydney sighed heavily, leaning back in her chair and closing her eyes. "Must we really move on again, Oliver? I'm tired of running."

"Then stay here and give yourself up." He walked over to the computer equipment, glancing over it. "You were running an internal VR program, right? Without a modem connection?"

"That's right. I only need the modem when I call other people, for my old VR.5 work." Sydney frowned. "Why?"

"Because the modem is on." He reached out to click it off, and glanced back at them. "There is an alternative you know. There didn't need to be an intruder."

"One of us?" Samantha jumped to her feet. "Well I bet I know which one. Only one of us here is a member of the Committee."

"As far as we know." He stared down at her with coldly accusing eyes. "I know that I didn't do it. I trust Sydney, and she trusts Duncan. Mrs Bloom was in a coma for more than a decade. In my view that rules her out."

"Stop it you two. Blaming each other won't help." Nora shook her head, glaring at Oliver. "What is it about the Committee and paranoia?"

"It's my paranoia that keeps us alive." Oliver checked the clip in his gun, then sat down on the edge of the computer desk. "Okay, so you don't think it was one of us who did this. So you don't want to run. Fine. In that case there's only one avenue left."

"You want me to try it again." Sydney looked back to the computer and sighed. "I suppose you're right."

"You don't have to do this if you don't want to, Syd." Moving to his old friend's side, Duncan took her hand. "If you don't want to take the risk..."

"I want to." She smiled at him, squeezing his hand. "Thanks."

"Fine. You get ready." Oliver went to the window, gazing out. "I've locked the doors and the windows, so that nobody can get in that way; the rest of us will go into the next room, to be sure that none of us interferes. Agreed?"

"I don't want Syd to go in alone," Samantha told him. He shrugged.

"Hard luck."

"I'll be alright, Sam. It's VR, it's not real." Sydney smiled. "I hope." She went to her desk and sat down, beginning to set to work. "I'll use a scenario that I'm familiar with. It'll give me more control. Say... the shopping mall back home."

"Fine." Oliver guided the others towards the door to the bedroom, then hesitated. "Will you be alright?"

"I'll be fine." She was surprised to hear him expressing concern; he had been so aloof for so long that she had been starting to think he had forgotten the almost-relationship they had once shared.

"Right. Yes, of course." Coldness was in his eyes once again, and he closed the door, sealing her into the room on her own. She sighed, and reached for the gloves and the visor, pulling them on and feeling as though she were preparing to seal her fate. She lowered the visor over her eyes and stepped into her new world.


The mall was loud, and reassuringly familiar. Crowds of people dressed in every imaginable colour threaded past her, all talking and shouting at once. Groups of teenagers hung out together, dressed in a wild assortment of the fashions that she remembered from throughout her lifetime. Punks stood with hippies, and New Romantics sprawled around the fountain, talking with a collection of baggy-trousered nineties kids. She walked past them all, revelling in this chance to be somewhere where she knew the territory; somewhere where it actually felt that she belonged. Her eyes sought out the shops that she knew; the clothes stores where she had bought much of her wardrobe; the computer store where she had collected most of her equipment; even the toy store where she had bought last year's birthday present for Duncan. It all brought back memories of some time of glorious innocence, before she had discovered the Committee, and before she had felt the need to run.

"Sydney Bloom?" The voice came from close behind her, but she did not turn, afraid at what she might see there. A hand pushed something towards her, and she saw that it was a small, cellular phone. "There's a call for you, Miss Bloom."

"You're the same man from before..." She tried to turn, but the man had already gone. All that remained was the phone in her hand. She took a deep breath and raised it to her ear.


She was in the motel room, standing in the bathroom. Nora was arguing with Oliver, apparently unable to see her daughter standing close by. Her anger amazed Sydney, who was used to seeing her mother as a helpless victim. She had rarely had cause to see the strengths of character that the years had kept hidden from her.

"How can you make such accusations without knowing anything about my daughter? Why would she be working for the other side? What could she possibly hope to gain?"

"I don't know." Oliver's voice was typically cold, with no sign of any of the anger that he might or might not have been feeling. "All that I know is, that she was in the control of the Committee for years. She was just a child when they took her away. How can any of you say that you know her now?"

"She's my daughter." Nora turned away. "You've been in the control of the Committee all of your life. Committee born, Committee bred, Committee raised. What right have you to judge my daughter for her experiences?"

"Because I know what I'm thinking. I know who I am. I can't trust anybody else, and you know that. Paranoia keep us alive."

"We can trust no one, because there is no one to trust." Nora's voice sounded flat. "The times that I've heard that."

"What's going on?" Coming up behind Duncan, Sydney leaned over his shoulder. He glanced up at her.

"Oliver accused Samantha of working with the other side." He shrugged. "Usual story. I think it'd take the world's biggest crisis to get those two working together."

"Ain't that the truth." Sydney smiled at him. He smiled back at her, but as he did so she saw his face change. All at once he was a stranger, dressed in a dark black suit, and she scrambled backwards out of the way, her eyes bright with fear.

"Duncan?" She gasped the word out, reaching towards the stranger, but it seemed that he could neither see nor hear her. She heard the sounds of muffled thuds, and swung about. She was standing now in the living quarters of their motel room, although she could not remember seeing the scenery change. The door stood open, and through it she could see a black sedan, its seats filled with the faces of strangers. Behind it was an identical car, and behind that, a third. In the middle vehicle she saw Duncan, Samantha and Nora, their eyes wide with fear.

"Mother, Sam!" She took a step forward, memories of another occasion when strangers had taken her sister away making her legs feel weak and her head fill with confusion.

"You can't do this." She turned towards the familiar voice, snatching at it as her last hope, and saw Oliver Sampson hanging limply in the grip of two dark suited men. A third man stood in front of him, wiping blood marks from his shiny black gloves.

"Oliver!" Sydney ran to him, but he showed no reaction, instead trying to focus his eyes on the man before him.

"This isn't what the Committee is supposed to stand for."

"The Committee stands for what we do." The man hit Oliver again, and this time the two men holding him let him go. He fell to the ground and did not get up. "The Committee has always stood for what we do." He gestured to his companions, and they walked briskly towards the door, not looking back at their former colleague. The door slammed shut. Sydney ran to it, but before she was halfway across the floor, the three sedans had driven away. She stared after them, shocked, then ran to Oliver.

"Oliver? Oliver, can you hear me?" She turned him over, checking for a pulse, and breathed a sigh of relief to discover that he was alive. "Oliver?"

"Sydney..." He opened his eyes, but still could not see her, instead frowning up at the ceiling. "I have to--" His voice faded, and his eyes closed. Sydney felt his body go limp, and her heart leapt into her throat.

"Oliver!" Quickly, she bent over him, listening for the sounds of his heart. Its regular, steady beating reassured her, and she closed her eyes, gripping his hand. There was something in it, and she found to her surprise that it was a cigarette lighter. It was gunmetal grey, bright and shiny, and had something inscribed on its surface. She closed her hand around it, intending to look closer at the inscription, but as she felt the touch of the cold metal in her palm, everything swirled and she was back in the mall.


"Sam! Dunc! Everybody!" Throwing off her visor, Sydney reached down to take off the gloves, and frowned in surprise at the cigarette lighter that she found in her hand. A cold trail ran down her spine, making her shiver involuntarily.

"Syd! How'd it go?" Gallantly offering her a hand to her feet, Duncan grinned down at her. She frowned.

"Not so good."

"The modem is on," Samantha observed. "You saw something, didn't you. It happened again."

"Yes, it did." She looked away, closing her hand around the latest object which had made the crossover with her. "This man came up to me, just like before, and said there was a phone call. I saw the link, and suddenly I was back here. It was weird. There were these people. They were taking you all away. But you were still here, Oliver."

"Then he must have betrayed us," Samantha said, her voice cold. He swung round to face her, but Sydney stopped the argument before it could begin.

"No. No it wasn't like that." She pressed her fingers around the cold metal of the cigarette lighter. "You were holding something, Oliver. I picked it up, and - and it's still here." She held out the lighter, and saw surprise register on his face. He clapped his hand to his pocket, and frowned.

"It's gone."

"Then anyone could have planted it in Syd's hand." Duncan took the lighter, frowning at it. "Why have you got a cigarette lighter if you don't smoke?"

"Exactly. How could anybody have planted it on me when none of us knew that you had it?" Sydney took the lighter back and peered at the inscription. It was faded with age, but she could still read it.

"JSS from MJS. What does that mean?"

"It belonged to my father." Oliver took the lighter back. "James Simon Sampson, from Mary Jennifer Sampson; his wife."

"Oh." Strangely touched by this sign of sentimentality, Sydney shrugged. "Well look, you were all together while I was in VR, right? So we know it wasn't any of us who set this up."

"Do we? The equipment could have been sabotaged before. Somebody could have rigged something up." Samantha was looking at Oliver as she spoke, and Sydney saw the veil slide across his eyes as he slipped the cigarette lighter back into his pocket.

"I'm afraid that I don't have the technical expertise for that, my dear woman. Of all of us, only you would be capable of doing such a thing. Except for Sydney of course, and we've already ruled her out."

"Oh be quiet the pair of you." Impatience filled Nora's voice. "Neither of you could have done it, because neither of you had the opportunity to put the lighter in Sydney's hand. Why are you always so suspicious of each other?"

"Because he's Committee," Samantha said sullenly. Oliver glared at her.

"And what are you, exactly?" he asked. Nora swung around to face him, her eyes bright with rage. When she spoke it was with true anger, and her words struck at Sydney's heart.

"How can you make such accusations without knowing anything about my daughter? Why would she be working for the other side? What could she possibly hope to gain?"

"I don't know." Oliver sounded cold and distant. "All that I know is, that she was in the control of the Committee for years. She was just a child when they took her away. How can any of you say that you know her now?"

"She's my daughter." Sydney knew the words before they even came out. She heard her mother speaking them, and her mouth opened soundlessly. "You've been in the control of the Committee all of your life. Committee born, Committee bred, Committee raised. What right have you to judge my daughter for her experiences?"

"No! Stop it, please!" She ran towards them, taking her mother by the arm. "Please, don't say that!"

"Say what?" Her mother frowned at her. "Would you rather that he insulted your sister?"

"He doesn't mean it like that. He's just being Oliver." She looked about at the room. "What you just said; your argument. Those were the exact words I just heard you saying in VR. It's just what I saw!"

"Are you sure?" The argument forgotten, Oliver turned to her, his eyes bright with urgency. "Think, Sydney."

"I'm sure." She nodded slowly. "What I'm seeing in VR - it's starting to come true. First the objects that I bring back with me, and now this. I'm starting to see the future." She remembered seeing the others being taken away, and finding them in that damp dungeon, dead or dying; and a sob caught in her throat. "Everything that I saw..."

"What did you see?" Oliver's voice was hard, but it was no more than she was used to. She blinked up at him.

"I saw - I saw the others dead. It was only you and me left, and - and I think I tried to kill you."

"I can understand that bit," Samantha muttered. Oliver did not take the time to glare at her. Instead he was focussed on Sydney.

"Where were we?" he asked her. She frowned.

"A room. A dark room. It was damp, and the walls were made of stone." Her eyes strayed to the piece lying on the computer desk.

"A stone dungeon? The Committee doesn't have anything like that." Oliver smiled down at her. "Come on Sydney. Relax. There's nothing to be afraid of. What you saw was a VR induced vision. My argument with your mother has been building for days. The exact words are immaterial. Any number of things might have caused you to see that in VR. You were worried, tense; you were afraid about what happened to you before."

"I suppose so." She stared up at him, nodding slowly. "I - It was just a shock, that's all. I think I need some air."

"Of course." He smiled and walked her to the door, unlocking it. "Would you like one of us to go with you?"

"No. Just as long as you promise not to kill each other while I'm gone." He smiled at that, and watched as she walked away. As the swirling dust moved around her, she glanced back, and saw that he was still standing in the doorway, watching her. She wandered out of sight, trying to allow his words to reassure her. Everything was confused in her mind, and the thought of her friends lying in that dungeon, dying, afraid and in pain, made her heart beat with a fast, cold rhythm. She dug her hands into her pockets and closed her eyes against the increasing violence of the dust storm. She wanted to go back to the others, and be safe in that room, where nothing could happen to them without her being a part of it; but her head hurt, and she needed to be alone. She hunched her shoulders, and tried to find somewhere to shelter. She had to run through her knowledge of VR, to try to figure out what was going on. There had to be an explanation for it somewhere.


The motel was quiet, although the sounds of distant cars passed by constantly on the road. Sydney counted along the doors, hoping that she had not kept the others up by staying out so late. She knew that Oliver would still be awake. He slept so rarely that she was starting to worry about him; and when she did finally persuade him to snatch an hour or two here and there, he slept with his hand tightly gripping his gun. She had tried to take it away from him once whilst he slept, only to nearly get her head blown off by his rather too well honed instincts.

The front door of their room was open, and Sydney frowned, wondering if someone was getting something from the car. Light flooded the car park, which was unlike Oliver. He usually wouldn't allow them to leave the door open, or even the curtains drawn back, if there was a light on. Sometimes she thought that he had learnt rules of security the way other children learnt the alphabet. His first words had probably been Keep away from the windows.

"Hello?" She stepped in through the door, glancing about. The door through to the bedroom stood open as well, and she could see nobody. A shiver ran through her.

"Oh no..." She walked further into the room, looking around and afraid of what she might see. At one side, lying sprawled on the floor, was Oliver Sampson. He lay face down, unmoving, and she ran to him, turning him over and feeling for a pulse.

"Oliver?" She shook him gently, desperate to know what had happened, and he opened his eyes, frowning sightlessly at the ceiling.

"Sydney? I - I have to--" He broke off, his eyes closing once again, and she laid him gently back down. The room sounded frighteningly quiet, and the silence seemed to hurt her ears. Huddled into a ball, she crouched close to Oliver, watching the darkness beyond the open doorway, staring into her memories. Feeling very alone, she began to tremble.


"Sydney?" Oliver's voice sounded weak, and she glanced towards him, afraid that he was just mumbling in his sleep. His eyes were open and he was blinking at her, confusion showing on his face. "Where are we?"

"In the motel." She helped him to sit up. "You'd better take it easy."

"It's not so bad. I've been beaten up before." He stood before she could stop him, and she glared at him.

"That's just what you said about getting shot. Either you've had a terrible career, or you're a lousy liar, Sampson."

"Never mind." He rubbed his head. "Where are the others?"

"You don't know? You were here. I - I was--" She turned away. "I knew this was going to happen. This was just what I saw. Why didn't I stay?"

"Steady. All you knew was what you saw in VR.5. Why should you have believed that it was really going to happen?" Oliver walked unsteadily to a chair and sat down. "You had been gone about - about an hour. There was a knock at the door and I made the others get out of the way. I was on my way there, when the window broke and somebody threw a smoke grenade in. I remember trying to get everybody into the bedroom, but the door opened - with a key, I'm sure."

"It's not broken. They must have had a key." Sydney stared out of the window. She could see the broken glass now, although she hadn't noticed it before. The flapping curtains had hidden the hole.

"All these people came in. They had guns, but they didn't use them. I don't think they wanted to kill anybody." He was frowning, and she couldn't help thinking that he had added that bit for her benefit. "They said that they were taking over the protection of your family. They asked where you were... Then they started taking everybody out to the cars. I tried to stop them." He shrugged. "Glenn Walters was in charge; I recognised him from when I first joined up. He was a real sadist that some bright spark put in charge of physical training."

"Then he's got my family." Sydney closed her eyes.

"He's not in charge; you don't have to worry about that. Walters is a bully; a hard man. He'll be taking them to someone else, and he won't dare do anything to any of them. If this was a clean up job they would never have been taken away; they'd have been killed on the spot."

"That's supposed to make me feel better?" She stood up sharply, turning away from him. "Why did they leave you here? Why didn't they take you too?"

"You think that I betrayed them?" He stood up as well, following her to the door where she stood gazing out, hugging herself tightly. "Do you really think that I would do that? I don't know why they left me here, Sydney. Maybe because I used to be one of them; or maybe because it isn't over for me until they have you too. The Sampson file has to be closed at the same time as the Bloom file."

"My family is not a file!" She spun around to face him. "I want to go home, Oliver. I want to go back to the city, and back to my apartment, and back to my old life. Why can't you just tell them that? We won't talk to anybody, or give anything away. I won't even touch another computer for as long as I live, if that's what they want. I just want everything to be like it was."

He took her shoulders, gently trying to get through to her.

"Then you would have to travel back through time, and stop your father from joining the Committee. There is no easy way out. There can't be. It's a labyrinth."

"Well I don't care anymore." She walked over to the computer and sat down in front of it. "I'm going back in. Somebody somewhere knows something, and they can get in touch when I'm in VR.5. I have to find somebody to talk to."

"You can't. It might be dangerous." She smiled slightly, wondering what his concern was for; her, or the Committee's investment. With Oliver Sampson you could never be sure.

"I have to, Oliver. What else is there to do? Do you know where they've taken my family?"

"No." He sat down on the desk, staring at her. "It could be anywhere."

"Then I'm going in." She began to type commands into the computer, working at speed. He nodded slowly.

"Then I'm going with you."

"What?" She shook her head. "Are you kidding? You hate VR."

"I hate a lot of things." He walked quickly to the door and closed it, locking it sharply. "Get everything ready. You can choose the scenario."

"I - I don't know if this will work with you as well, Oliver. You can't control VR.5 the way that I can. You'd be swept along in whatever happens."

"I know." He began pulling on the gloves, muttering to himself under his breath. Sydney couldn't catch the words, and decided that she didn't want to.

"Alright..." She pulled on her own gloves, and reached for her modem. "I'll dial your mobile number to bring you in. Ready? Five... four... three..." Beside her she felt him tense up. "Two... one!" There was a rush of light, and the link was made.


It was early morning, and the sun had barely begun to rise. A few birds were tentatively singing their songs, as though unsure whether or not they should disturb the world just yet. Sydney looked around. They were standing in a park, with a lake and some ducks. A bench stood before the lake, with the shape of a man seated on it. He stood up as they approached, turning to face them. Sydney recognised the man who had brought her the phone in VR before.

"Hello." He was smiling warmly at them. Sydney glanced across at Oliver, who was frowning at the new arrival. She had no idea if he even knew that he was in VR. It was always hard to say with somebody who was not coded for the system, the way that she and her family were. He claimed to be able to tell when he was inside, but once in there, reality and virtuality tended to merge.

"Who are you?" There was no belligerence in Oliver's tone, just cold detachment; a clear warning. The man smiled again.

"I'm the Messenger." He reached into his pocket, staring nervously at Sampson as the Committee man drew a gun, alerted by the other's movements.

"Oliver, give him a chance." Pushing his hand down, Sydney looked to the Messenger, who pulled a pair of cellular phones from inside his coat. "You knew that there would be two of us?"

"Of course." He looked surprised. "We know everything."

"Who's we?" He turned to walk away, but Sydney moved to intercept him. "Who's we?"

"All of us." He grinned at her, and suddenly he was Abernathy, smirking through those mocking eyes, laughing softly at her confusion. Almost at once his features were rearranged into those of the Keeper, the mysterious man who had wandered out of the bushes at the Bloom house, after shooting Abernathy dead. Then, suddenly, the figure was gone altogether. Sydney looked back towards Oliver, and shrugged at him. He smiled back, and they raised their phones. Immediately reality shifted.


They were standing in a basket ball court, in the middle of what looked like some inner city recreation ground. Graffiti marked the cement walls, which were topped with mesh fencing. Teenaged boys hung from the mesh, shouting encouragement to the handful of young players. Sydney jumped as a row of ball wielding youths came towards her, and jumped again as Oliver pulled her out of the way.

"What do you want?" the lead youth asked. He was disproportionately large, wearing a torn leather jacket and a skull and crossbones earring. "This is our place."

"We're looking for the Messenger," Sydney told him. He laughed.

"You won't find him here."

"Then you know him?" She stepped forward, but the gang closed in around her, blocking her way.

"Of course we know him. We work for him." The leader of the group bounced his basketball, managing to make this simple act drip with menace. "If you've got something to say to him, you've got to say it to us first."

"Let us past." Oliver reached for his gun, but found that he was not armed. The leader laughed.

"No guns for the good guys," he said cheerfully. "But are you the good guys?" His voice took on a sinister tone. "Oliver Sampson, Committee tough guy, and Sydney Bloom, Committee VR contact. Did you ever stop to think that what you were doing might not have been for the best? And what about Joseph Bloom. You're trying to find him, but did you ever stop to think that it might be best if he stayed lost? Who's to say that he's the good guy? Who's to say what's good?" He giggled.

"Who are you?" Oliver asked, stepping forward. The laughter stopped instantly.

"Haven't you guessed it yet?" Another of the teenagers began to laugh, and everybody joined in. The boys dangling from the mesh fence laughed as well, and the echoes of their mockery resounded about the strange place.

"You're supposed to guess." The leader sounded disgusted. "You're supposed to know."

"Well supposing you tell us." Oliver made a grab for the boy, but his hand passed straight through him. The boy laughed.

"I'm not here," he said darkly. "I don't exist, see? We're the ones who weren't; the ones who never got to be. All those people that you killed, Oliver. Didn't you ever wonder about them? Well we're the children they never got to have." He smiled, although there was no humour in his face. "You're in our world now, Ollie. Both of you. Here you see what we want you to see. There's no Key. No way out. You just have to ride it through to the end. Maybe you'll make it." He turned away. "And maybe you won't."

"Wait!" Sydney tried to run forward, but her feet moved uselessly. She could not make herself move at all. She struggled, but the world was changing around her, and the boys in the basketball court were laughing louder and louder. Noises zipped past, but everything became confused.


They were in a building, but everything was in black and white. Sydney stared down at her hands, but they too were nothing but shades of grey. The only colour that she could see was the green of Oliver's eyes, and the flash of gold from his earring. She could hear voices, but could not see their sources.

"Oliver?" He was trying to avoid her gaze, and she reached out for him, but he pulled away. "Oliver, are you okay?"

"Just fine, Sydney." He looked around. "Colourful place."

"Sometimes this happens in VR.5." She frowned at him. "You do know that you're in VR?"

He stared back at her. "Of course I know. Do you think the world has a habit of turning black and white for no reason? Question is, what is all this supposed to represent? And who the hell brought us here?"

"You're supposed to find that out along the way." A small man, white coated and wearing round spectacles, emerged from out of nowhere and consulted the clipboard in his hand. "Ah yes. You'll be Mr Sampson and Miss Bloom. Special cases as I understand it."

"Who are you?" The belligerence in his tone now open, Oliver stepped forward. His body connected solidly with an invisible barrier, and he stumbled backwards. "What the hell-?"

"Just a precaution, Mr Sampson." The strange little man smiled sweetly. There was a patronising light in his eyes and his voice was gentle and patient, as though he were speaking to a small child. "We can't have you hurting yourselves now, can we?"

"Who are you?" Sydney tried to step forward, but merely encountered the invisible wall herself. "What is this place?"

The little man laughed again.

"Can't you tell? It's a secure unit. You're here for evaluation. We decide whether or not you're stable citizens. A loose cannon is nobody's friend, after all. We can't have people running around endangering the rest of society." He chuckled softly. "All that we need to know is how you've lived your lives. Are you useful members of society? Nothing to worry about, I'm sure." He turned to leave.

"Wait" Sydney pressed her hands against the barrier. "What happens if we pass?"

"Then you go on to the next level." He wrote something down on his clipboard.

"And if we don't pass?"

"Ah." He smiled, noting something else on the board. "Well like I said... We can't have loose cannons running about the place, can we? Those who fail the test are liquidated. It's really the only way. And quite painless. Well-" he frowned. "More or less, anyway." Shrugging his shoulders he hurried away, scratching his head thoughtfully. They heard him mumbling to himself as he left.

"Oh great." Oliver turned around, leaning against the wall that did not seem to be there. "Now we get put on trial for our lives by figments of our own imaginations."

"The best judge." Sydney smiled absentmindedly. "We can't lie to ourselves, after all."

"Whose side are you on?" He slammed his fists against the barrier. "If they kill us here, we die in real life, right?"

"As far as we know, yes." She closed her eyes. "Have we got anything to worry about, Oliver? I mean, has everything that we've done been for the best?"

"I don't know." He stared off into the middle distance. "All that we've done has been at the command of the Committee. Whatever their motives were is a mystery."

"But it's us that we have to convince. Do we really believe that we're innocent?"

"I haven't believed that since the day I joined up." He smiled at her. "You're not in the driving seat this time, Sydney. Maybe it's not us we have to convince. Maybe it's whoever brought us here."

"Maybe." She sat down on the floor, and he slid down the wall to sit next to her. "Maybe that's even more scary. We don't know who it might be." She smiled at him, a shaky half smile that did not quite reach her eyes. "But this isn't real, is it. This is just VR. Maybe it doesn't matter."

He stared at her for a long moment, then took her hand.

"Are you scared?" he asked her. She nodded. He nodded back. "Then it's real. Or it might as well be. Where there's fear, there's reality. Fear is the only truth."

"Did the Committee teach you that?" He was silent for a long moment, leaning his head back against the invisible wall, eyes closed. Finally he turned to look at her.

"My father died in a back street in some unnamed little city in some foreign country. I don't know which one. He was killed by foreign agents and nobody knew about it for more than a month. They finally found his body about six weeks after he died. He gave his life to protect the cover of an agent who turned out to have betrayed everything that my father had ever stood for; or at least everything I ever believed that he stood for. He died on his own, in the dark, in an alleyway full of rubbish. Not exactly glamorous. And I've always believed that I would meet my fate the same way." He smiled sadly. "I often wondered what went through my father's mind when they killed him; what went through the minds of all the people that I've killed. What about Simon Buchanan, when they put him to death? Whoever you are, and however you die, nothing matters. The only thing that is real is the fear that puts you where you are. The only thing that you can ever be certain of is the end that you meet. When you're dealing with the Committee, you never know who is on your side and who isn't; who you can trust and who you can't. You never even know for sure whether the life that you're living is your own or somebody else's. That's how much they mess you up. The only thing that's real is the fear that you feel."

Sydney looked away. There was something about Sampson's words which scared her, although she was not sure why. She was unused to such speeches from him; he was a man who restricted himself only to those words that were truly necessary. Now she found his lengthy sentences circling around inside her head, and they frightened her. If fear was the only reality, then her life had never been more real than these confused black and white seconds in this non-existent VR-induced world. And that scared her more than anything else.


"What is your name?" Unseen interrogators flashed the questions at her from all around. She answered them, trying to keep the shiver from her voice.

"My name is Sydney Bloom."

"How do you know that?"

"I know because it's who I am."

"How do you know who you are?"

"I don't know!" Shouting the words at her phantom interrogators, Sydney struggled to regain her composure. "My name is Sydney Bloom."

"How many people have you killed?"

"I've never killed anybody."

"Are you sure? How many times has the Committee asked you to find something out for them? How has that information been used? Could you have saved Simon Buchanan?"

"I don't know." Her heart felt leaden, and she closed her eyes momentarily. "No, I don't think so."

"How do you know that?"

"I don't." She leaned back in her chair as far as she could, and gazed up at the grey ceiling above her. It seemed to be growing closer with every question.


"What is your name?"

"Oliver Sampson." Oliver gazed up at the ceiling, unmoved by the questions and by the secrecy of those asking them. He had been interrogated before.

"How do you know that?"

"Because it's my name."

"How do you know your name?"

"Because my parents gave it to me."

"How do you know that they were your parents?"

"I don't." He tried to turn his head to face the man who had asked the question, but found that his neck would not move.

"How many people have you killed?"

"I have no idea."

"How many of them deserved to die?"

"I don't know." He smiled slightly. "But they're dead now. It doesn't matter anymore."

"They're dead. But are they all gone?" The voice came from directly in front of him, and Oliver looked up into the dark hazel eyes of a man in his early forties. He was wearing a rumpled grey suit, and he carried a small handgun. He smiled down at Oliver, who stared back at him, with no idea who he was or what he was supposed to represent.

"My name is Karl Samuels." The man held out the gun, dangling it by the trigger guard. "You shot me with this gun in 1983. I was the first man that you killed."

"Oh." Oliver kept the emotion from his voice.

"I was forty-three, and you shot me when I tried to intercept you at the Polish border. The bullet hit me in the stomach, and it took me a long time to die. Four and a half hours."

"Big deal." Oliver raised his eyes, staring at the man with a look of unbridled ice. "You're dead. You don't exist anymore."

"Neither will you, soon." Samuels pointed the gun at him.

"Go to hell." Sampson closed his eyes.


"Oliver?" It was dark and they were lying on a beach, where an unrealistically blue sea lapped at bright, white sand. Fish coloured in every shade in existence leaped periodically out of the water, their huge, bulbous black eyes staring at the pair.

"What?" Oliver sat up and looked around. He could not recall having seen the scenario change, but his head hurt at the difference of his surroundings nonetheless. So much colour after so little hurt his eyes.

"Do you think we passed the test?"

"We're still here, aren't we?" He stood up, looking around. "Wherever here is."

"Then why am I still so scared?"

"I don't know." He pulled her to her feet. "It couldn't be because some maniac is dragging us through seven shades of reality, and we don't know which way is up anymore?"

She smiled. "You could be right."

"So which way now?" He turned in a circle, gazing about at their latest level of confusion.

"I don't suppose it matters much." Sydney took his hand. "Come on. If this is some other bizarre attempt to send me mad, I'd rather get it over with."

"Any closer to figuring out who might be behind this?" Oliver asked as they walked onwards together. She laughed.

"Any closer to figuring out who shot JFK? Somebody somewhere knows too much about VR. That's all that I can figure. Somebody who can get in and out of our motel room as if they were never there."

"Somebody who knows way too much about us."

"We all know about you, Oliver." Without warning, three men stepped from behind a sand dune, guns in their hands. They were all dressed in black suits, and all had matching, expressionless black eyes. "And Sydney Bloom. The angel with the dirty hands."

"What?" Sydney stepped forwards, but all three guns turned to point at her. She froze.

"You know what we mean. The innocent girl, who says she works for the good of all, but in reality..." The speaker laughed shortly. "Let me tell you my story, Miss Bloom. I was one of the people ordered to interrogate you. Do you remember? The day you had a car crash, and you were taken to the Committee hospital."

"I remember." Sydney shivered.

"You wouldn't talk. And then you escaped. I was shot for failing to get what was wanted from you. I died because of you, Sydney Bloom."

"I - I'm sorry." She frowned, unable to think of what else to say. "I--"

"Save it for your epitaph, Miss Bloom." There was the louder than life sound of a gun hammer clicking back, and Sydney felt her heart leap.

"No." She took a step back, aware that Oliver was moving to her assistance. From out of nowhere three more men appeared, holding him back. He struggled, but was unable to break free. One of the first three men stepped forward, and as he did so his features rearranged. Suddenly he was no longer some unnameable stranger. His face was that of Oliver himself.

"Oliver!" Terrified Sydney stared up at the man, and then over at the other Sampson, now frozen in the grip of his assailants. The new Oliver laughed.

"That's right. I'm Oliver Sampson; the one that you killed." He toyed with his gun. "I'm the Oliver that was here before you started to interfere. I'm the Oliver that stayed loyal to the Committee. The one that you didn't corrupt." He smiled at her, and she saw the same cold light in his eyes that he had had when she had first met him. "I'm the one that is going to carry out my order to assassinate you."

"No." She turned, trying to run, but he caught her by the arm and spun her back around. She made a grab for his gun, struggling against him for it, knowing all the while that he was far too strong for her, and that she had no chance of winning. He pulled free, stepping back so quickly that she had no time to defend herself against the slap when it came. His hand connected sharply with her cheekbone, and she stumbled back. He raised the gun.

"You can't do this!" Oliver shouted, struggling to break free. His other self turned to look at him, smile sardonic, eyes cool and insulting.

"Why not?" he asked. "I'm you. I can do whatever you would do." He pulled the trigger.


"No!" Sydney dragged off the gloves and visor, gasping desperately, her eyes wide and staring. She gazed wildly around, panic overtaking her, until finally she realised that she was back in the motel room. Beside her Oliver moved suddenly, and she helped him to take off his own visor, all the time trying to bring herself back under control.

"Sydney!" The relief obvious in his voice, he hugged her briefly, then pulled away. "What the hell was all that about?"

"I don't know." She frowned, staring at him. "Oliver..."

"What?" He glanced down, seeing that his shirt was torn. "Did that happen... in there?"

"You don't remember?" Sydney sat down again, wiping the cold sweat from her forehead. "I've never been so afraid in all my life."

"It's Virtual Reality, Sydney. It can't be frightening." He toyed with the rip in the fabric of his shirt. "And it certainly can't tear holes in clothing."

"But it did. They grabbed you. You were fighting and your shirt was torn. I saw it." She rubbed her eyes. "My head hurts. I really thought--" She shivered abruptly, breaking off the sentence. He reached out to turn the computer off, frowning at her.

"In that case, you're staying out of VR.5. Whatever is going on in there is too dangerous. I won't have you risking yourself."

"You can't order me around, Oliver." She thought about the cold light in his eyes as he had prepared to execute her, and wondered if some part of him really had wanted to carry those orders out, when he been told to assassinate her all those weeks ago. Instead of obeying, he had tried to get her and Duncan out of the country. They had met Samantha, everything had grown confused and they had become trapped, unable to escape from the States due to the long, twisted tentacles of the Committee. Perhaps some part of him wished that he had executed her, and been able to remain relatively free. She decided that she did not want to think about it.

"What happened Sydney? I - I really can't remember a thing." There was confusion in his eyes. "I... think I remember questions, but I don't know what they were."

"There were questions." She wandered over to the settee and sat down, drawing her legs up and hugging her knees. "They were everywhere. Eyes everywhere, wanting to know things. Trying to make us feel guilty."

"That isn't so difficult." He sat down next to her, and tried not to yawn. "In the morning I'll make some calls. I might be able to find out where the others are."

"Thankyou." She leant against him, glad of the presence of somebody, even if she still couldn't be sure which side he was truly on. "I'm so tired..."

"Me too." He leaned his head back against the soft material of the couch, sure that it had never seemed this comfortable in the past. His eyelids felt heavy. "Get some sleep, Sydney. Well talk about it in the morning..."

"Yeah..." She relaxed against him, and let sleep take over what remained of her concentration.


Oliver Sampson awoke slowly, feeling vaguely as though he had been out drinking, but could not remember getting drunk. He was sitting on a settee, with Sydney spread out beside him, using his legs as a pillow. A moment's automatic irritation flashed through him, before he discovered that he actually didn't mind at all. He brushed some stray hair away from her eyes and blinked about.

He was in a room, with white wallpaper and blue carpets. The settee, which was clearly expensive, was decorated in blue and green, matching the thick curtains.

"Sydney?" Keeping his voice low, Oliver rose to his feet. Sydney groaned at him and he ignored her, heading for the door. It was locked, and when he went to the windows, he found that behind the pleasant curtains was nothing but solid brick. He slammed on the wall with his fists and Sydney yawned, opening her eyes to blink at him.

"Oliver, some of us are trying to sleep." She frowned. "Where are we?"

"I have no idea." He shook his head, confused. "We went to sleep in the motel room."

"This is not the motel room." She ran to the door, pulled hard on the handle, then gazed about at their unexplained prison. "But the doors were locked. Who could have got in? And why didn't we wake up?"

"Because we were drugged. Somebody must have been in the room; they could have drugged us while we were in VR. It wouldn't have taken very long." He shook his head. "Maybe the same person who tore my shirt, and put those things in your hand."

"The person who switched my modem on." Sydney nodded. "But who? The Committee?"

"No. The Committee took Duncan and the others. If they wanted us as well, they'd have taken us then. Why set up all of this?"

"Somebody else then. Maybe a part of the split faction?"

"I don't know." He leant against the wall, head hanging as though he were very tired, or was feeling particularly defeated. "Sydney, I'm sorry. I should never have taken you to all those motels, all those boarding houses. Somebody somewhere was bound to have been an agent. Any number of people might have seen us."

"We had to keep moving, we all understood that." She took his hand. "Mother couldn't live under a tree in the wilds of Washington State somewhere, and we all trusted the Keeper. You can't be blamed if he's been the one who's been screwing us around. It's not your fault, Oliver."

"Thankyou." He smiled, although she could see that he still was not convinced of his innocence. His smile vanished at the sound of a telephone ringing from somewhere across the room. He moved to answer it, but Sydney held up her hand, stopping him in his tracks.

"This is for me," she told him firmly, and for some reason that he did not understand, he obeyed her, and let her answer the phone. She picked it up and held it to her ear.



The room felt cold and damp, as though it were far underground, and had never felt the touch of sunlight. She shivered, wrapping her arms about her body in an effort to get warm. Hollow coughs sounded about her, echoing slightly in the musty silence.

"Hello?" She walked further into the room, and was not surprised when she found her family sitting on the floor, gathered together in the darkness. Nora tried to stand up as she approached, but Sydney could see that she did not have the strength.

"Why are we back here?" She looked around, wondering if Oliver was also here, as he had been the last time that she had found herself in the room. Duncan frowned at her.

"Where else would we be?"

Samantha looked up. "This is where we were always going to be."

"Where we have to be," Nora Bloom told her, staring up at her through sunken eyes. "We're safe here. They can't get at us."

"But we're prisoners." Sydney turned to go back to the door through which she had entered, but it had vanished, and there was nothing left but a featureless stone wall. "How can we be safe when we're prisoners?"

"Because they can't come here." Samantha smiled. "It's simple. If we stay here, they won't come."

"And we can't leave." Sydney hammered on the wall. Duncan climbed to his feet, pulling her away.

"Don't do that. They'll hear you, and then they'll come."

"But you'll die here!" Although she was in VR.5, Sydney was sure that the presence of her family meant something. This scenario was as important as the interrogations earlier on. She had something to prove to her unknown manipulator.

"So? We'll be safe." Samantha smiled slyly. "That's why he put us in here."

"Who?" Sydney turned to her sister, crouching down in front of her. "Who put us in here?"

"Daddy of course. Stupid." She laughed. "He put us in here so that nobody could ever hurt us again." She pushed Sydney away. "Don't you know anything?"

"I know that this isn't real." Sydney stood up again, staring around at the cold, damp walls. "I know that this is only VR.5. It can't be real. My father wouldn't do this."

"Wouldn't he?" The voice was soft and British, and was just as Sydney had heard it in her dreams. She swung around. Joseph Bloom stood in the reappeared doorway, dressed in an old raincoat and a battered sou'wester hat. He was carrying an ancient suitcase and a newspaper. She could see that the front page story was something to do with the Berlin Wall coming down, but as she looked at it, it changed, and became the news of the downfall of President Nixon.

"Why wouldn't I do this?" He stepped towards her, and she automatically backed away. "I'm with the Committee myself, remember?" He held up the hand in which he held the newspaper. On one finger was a gleaming labyrinth ring. "All that we do is for the ones at the centre. All that we wish is to be taken further in."

"You're not my father." She backed away from him, shaking her head. The wall met her suddenly, and she gasped at the shock of its hard, unyielding touch. "I'm going to take my family away from here."

"But my dear Miss Bloom. You don't even know where here is." Joseph had gone, and in his place was Abernathy, a fresh red flower in his buttonhole. "You have no idea whether this place is real, or if it only exists for you in virtual reality. Give up. Go away with Ollie. Forget about your family."

"Never!" She tried to run towards him, but a section of the floor between them vanished, and there was nothing but an empty void instead. Emptiness stretched on forever, and instinct told her that if she fell down, she would be lost for good. She stared across at her family, trapped with the enemy, with no way for her to get to them. Duncan raised his hand in a silent farewell.

"Sydney..." It was Oliver's voice, coming from beside her. She turned. He was holding a labyrinth ring, gazing at the symbol as though transfixed. "It's yours if you want it, Sydney. From the people at the centre."

"I don't want it." She tore it from him and hurled it into the abyss. "I want my family, Oliver."

"You can't have them." He smiled at her, and she saw Abernathy in his eyes. "They're with us now. And so will you be, soon."

"I won't be a part of the Committee." She backed away from him until there was nowhere to go but into the abyss. "I won't be a part of whatever you people are doing."

"Then say goodbye to everything." He was no longer Oliver, but Joseph, and he was holding Oliver by the wrist, a gun firmly against the younger man's temple. "What we can't have, we kill. That's the way. Join us, Sydney."

"No." She grabbed Oliver by the arm, pulling hard to free him from Joseph's grip. Bloom stumbled and the gun went off, sending a bullet ricocheting visibly, as if in slow motion, about what was suddenly and inexplicably the secret room at the Bloom house. The floor beneath Sydney's feet vanished and she and Oliver began to fall, far down into the abyss. Above her, Sydney saw the ricocheting bullet slam home into her father's chest. He grabbed at the growing bloodstain, his eyes wide, and then he vanished altogether. There was nothing but darkness, and nothing to do but fall.


"Sydney?" The receiver fell from her nerveless fingers and Oliver caught it, holding it to his ear. Whoever had been there had hung up, and he turned his attention to the young woman beside him. "What happened?"

"I don't know." She shivered. "But I know that my family is in danger, Oliver. I can't explain it, but... It's as if somebody in VR was trying to warn me. It's all confused, and there's all this paranoia running through everything, but I know that they're in danger."

"Then we have to find them." He hesitated, as though making a difficult decision, then picked up the phone and dialled a number, turning his back on his companion as he did so. "Hello? This is Oliver Sampson. I want to run a code four four seven." There was a silence. "Yes, Jonathon, I do realise that everybody is looking for me. So what else is new?" He laughed. "Well, there is that, granted. They're not usually all trying to kill me... Listen Jonathon, the Blooms. What's the SP?"

"Oliver?" Sydney stepped towards him, but he gestured her into silence.

"Come on, Jonathon. You owe me at least three lifetimes worth of favours. Who was it who-?" He grinned. "Thankyou Jonathon. The same to you." He hung up and looked over at Sydney. "That was a friend of mine. We go back a long way."

"He's Committee?" Sydney asked. Sampson nodded.

"Yes, on his days off. What's important is that he has access to information that people closer to the centre would kill for."

"And?" Sydney was excited. He shrugged.

"The Committee doesn't have your family. I'm sorry. It looks as though some foreign power has taken them; perhaps as a way of re-establishing some control over your father." He put an arm around her shoulders, unsure how to speak to her after giving her this news. "Sydney, I'm sorry. When I saw Walters, I assumed that my people had them. I never imagined that he would have gone over. There's nobody to confirm it with, and I can't ask Jonathon anything else. It wouldn't be fair. You have no idea what kinds of dangers I was exposing him to just by making that call."

"Dangers such as the world wide revelation that he is KGB, Committee and British Secret Service?" They turned as one, and saw a man standing in the doorway. The door had opened soundlessly, with no warning at all. He smiled at them both. "You knew that the phone would be tapped?"

"Of course I knew. I hoped that it wouldn't matter." Oliver walked purposefully towards the new arrival, but was unsurprised when three men appeared from the corridor behind him, to stand in a compelling line of hard muscle. "Who are you? And what do you want?"

"Miss Bloom knows me as the Messenger. You can call me James."

"That's not your name." Oliver was frowning at him. "I know you. I've seen you somewhere."

"We met once, a long time ago." The Messenger smiled. "For now, though, names are unimportant. All that matters is finding out where the Blooms are, and how we can get them back."

"What's that to you?" Sydney asked. James turned to look at her, his eyebrows raised.

"I should have thought that was obvious. Mr Sampson here is a Committee agent, who was prepared to risk his life to keep you alive, Miss Bloom. He just put a top Russian agent at risk of discovery by telephoning him on an insecure line in order to try and find your family. That, to me, suggests importance. Importance speaks of money."

"Then you're just a mercenary." Sydney felt inexplicably disappointed. "Then how did you know about VR.5?"

"I have more sources than most." The Messenger smiled enigmatically. "One source in particular, that is very well versed in all things VR. My... client wishes to ensure the safety of the Bloom clan, for reasons that I cannot divulge. You were brought here for your own safety, and to... assist us where possible."

"Then you can assist us by letting us out of this room." Oliver took another step forward. "Be nice, before I decide to let the more unpleasant facets of my character shine through this pleasant veneer."

"Argumentative. I was told to watch for that." The Messenger smiled. "Still, never mind. I'm not sensitive." He cocked his head on one side. "You have a decision to make, Mr Sampson. You can co-operate, and maybe have a chance of getting the Bloom clan back alive, or you can become awkward, and very likely get them all killed."

"You know who has them?" Sydney was unable to keep the anxiousness from her voice. The Messenger stared at her for a long moment before shaking his head.

"We had no idea where to start looking, until Mr Sampson made his call. I knew that he had useful contacts, but I never imagined that they would be as useful as, er... Jonathon." He smiled. "Not the name that I know him by."

"Never mind what his name is." Oliver did not feel inclined to act in any particularly less hostile fashion. "You listen to me... James. You screw up VR.5, you play with Sydney's mind, you drug us and bring us here... This doesn't exactly sound like an ideal alliance. Why should we trust you?"

"Because you are out on your own, Oliver. You have no one else. Abernathy is dead, and you probably couldn't have trusted him anyway. Who else is there?" He smiled. "You've always had somebody, haven't you, Oliver. Alex, Jonathon, all those secret contacts that used to help you out across the Iron Curtain. Only this time, you're out on your own in the country you call home. And home is a lonely place to be alone in."

Oliver was silent, allowing his glares to speak volumes. James was right; painfully so. Oliver was no stranger to being alone in the world; being out in the cold with no safe haven and massed authorities and secret police forces after him. In Eastern Europe he had excelled in such an environment, building a network of carefully selected contacts who he knew that he could trust. Here, in America, he had no such contacts. It was a country that should have been friendly to him, but he was stuck somewhere in the middle of it, with nowhere to turn, and no one to turn to; save Jonathon, whose life was put at greater risk with every phone call.

"I'm right, aren't I." The Messenger sighed. "Look Mr Sampson, I'm not the enemy. Really. My client is willing to pay me a very great deal of money for the ensured safety of the Bloom family, and those that they choose to travel with. I have no political allegiances, no secret service contacts or history; I've never been a part of the Committee labyrinth, although naturally you won't believe that. All that I want is to collect my very substantial fee."

"I say we trust him." Stepping forward, her heart in her throat, Sydney looked up at Oliver. "Please. What else can we do?"

"Nothing." His eyes darker than ever, Oliver turned away. "Alright, we'll work together. But I want a gun, and I want the key to this door."

"Fine." James held up a small key, and offered over his own gun. "It's loaded, and the bullets are real. Or would you like to shoot me just to make sure?"

"Don't tempt me." Oliver checked the load of the small automatic, and stuck it into his belt. It felt much better to have the gun on him; as though he had finally got dressed again. "Alright, we're with you on this. Sydney and I will begin searching, with this as our base."

"That's the idea." James glanced across at Sydney. "That's if Miss Bloom is feeling up to it?"

"This is my family we're talking about; of course I feel up to it." She stepped forward, standing alongside Oliver. "We can get money from you, and supplies when we need them. Information?"

"Of course. All of my resources are at your disposal, as is my client's - our client's - money. Limitless funds, in order to find out where the others have been taken. It could be anywhere in the world; remember that."

"We're not likely to forget." Oliver took Sydney's hand. "A car?"

"There's one waiting for you downstairs. Full tank, and false papers in the glove compartment; plus enough money to get you started." James hesitated. "There's a telephone in the car. It's fitted with a scrambling device, but I'd still suggest that you only use it in an emergency. Press one to automatically dial here. Your computer equipment, Miss Bloom, is already stored in the back of the car. Didn't leave much room for anything else, I'm afraid."

"We travel light." Sydney squeezed Oliver's hand slightly. "Can we get going now? Please? I don't want to leave them any longer than I have to."

"Stay in touch." The Messenger moved aside, but put his hand lightly on Sydney's arm. "I realise that you have no real reason to trust me, but all the same... When the phone rings, answer it. Both of you."

"So that you can take us into some more of your VR nightmares?" Oliver pushed him aside. "I don't think so."

"Please!" James moved to intercept them. "I don't have any control over what my client does with VR.5. That's all his doing. He wanted to... to test you. To make sure that you were the people that he wanted you to be. I don't know what conclusion he reached."

"Who his he?" Towering over their new contact, Oliver frowned deeply. "What's his name? What do you know about him?"

"I can't tell you." James backed away. "I'm sorry, but I'm under orders. I can't tell you anything unless he says that I can. He's always listening in. All that I can tell you is that he cares about the Blooms; a very great deal."

"Thankyou." Leading Oliver away from any chance of a further confrontation, Sydney smiled back at the Messenger. She was still smiling as they reached the road outside. A black car was parked by the curb, the keys in the ignition.

"Sydney..." His tone filled with warning, Oliver hesitated before opening the driver's door. "We don't know anything about this man. We don't know who he is, or--"

"We know this much." Sydney slipped into the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment. "He wasn't lying about unlimited funds." She pulled out a thick stack of hundred dollar bills. "There's at least ten thousand dollars here, Oliver. He's got to be on the level."

"I hope so." Oliver sat down in the seat next to her, and gazed out through the windscreen. "If he's not telling the truth, we've got no chance of finding your family."

"I know." She closed her eyes for a brief moment. "Oliver?"


"We're going to find them, aren't we."

He hesitated before answering, thinking of all the possible responses. Finally he smiled at her.

"Of course we're going to find them. We've got unlimited money, a contact who seems to be a real genius with VR.5... How could we fail?"

"Thanks." She leaned back in the car seat, listening as he started the engine up. Being on the road again gave her a new feeling of purpose; as though she were finally doing something positive. "Who do you suppose our client is?"

"Does it matter? He's got us dancing to his tune well enough." There was a trace of bitterness in Oliver's tone, and he smiled at her suddenly. "Sorry."

"It's alright. I never really thought to apologise before. You've rather become entangled in my problems. It wasn't fair to do this to you."

"Sydney..." He stared ahead for a long time before continuing. "I haven't been a member of the human race for a very, very long time. You don't have to apologise for giving me something that I can care about again. I just hate the thought that there is somebody out there who knows everything about us; somebody who can manipulate VR.5 as and when he feels like it. James said that he knew nothing about the VR incidents, and I'm inclined to believe him."

"Me too." Sydney shivered. "Somewhere out there, there's somebody who can get inside our minds - inside VR.5 - and can use it however he wants. It's kind of spooky."

"Spooky?" He laughed. "I'd call it terrifying; and fear is something that doesn't belong in virtual reality."

"Because fear isn't virtual; it's more real than anything else." Sydney turned her head to gaze out of the passenger window. "I'm scared, Oliver. I'm afraid that we won't find the others before it's too late."

"We'll find them, Syd." She thought that it was the first time she had heard him calling her that, but she didn't comment on it. Instead she turned to look at him. "It could take us a long time; you have to realise that. And while we're looking for them, they're going to be looking for you. If they can't catch you, they'll kill you."

"I know." She smiled sadly, trying not to think about how it could all end, and turned back to watch the world rush by outside her window. It was a world full of normal people, living normal lives that would never involve the Committee. A real world, which existed outside the labyrinth that she now dwelt within. One day she would like to get back to it.