There was an uneasy silence in the motel room, and Sydney stared at the immobile figure in the bed. Duncan held her hand, but she hardly felt his presence. She could not take her eyes off the unconscious form, her face empty, her eyes sad.

"Don't give up, Syd. There's gotta be something we can do."

She glanced over at Duncan, and managed a small, if bitter, smile. "Yeah, sure there is. We can go away and leave him here to die."

"That's not what I mean. Look, you know I was right. We couldn't have taken him to hospital. There's no telling how much danger that could have put him in. We don't know who might be after him, and he doesn't trust anybody. Maybe not even us."

"Especially not us." She sighed. "I know you were right, Dunc. Really I do. I know he'd have gone nuts if he knew we were planning to take him to hospital. But leaving him here…"

"We're not leaving him here. We're here too."

"No. I'll stay here with Oliver." She smiled against the protests. "You have to go back to the other motel, and stay with Samantha and my mother. They need you, and there's no sense in us both staying here."

"Are you sure, Syd?" He looked concerned, but she nodded.

"Yeah, I'm sure. It doesn't take both of us to watch him." She shook her head, trying to stop the tears that wanted to come. "You've been here a couple of days already, and there hasn't been any change. The others must be going crazy, and I don't want to ring them." She took a deep, shaky breath. "He saved my life, Duncan. That car was coming straight for me, but he put himself in the way. I keep seeing it…"

"Hey, take it easy. It's not your fault." He squeezed her hand. "Relax, Syd. It'll all be okay."

"Will it?" She smiled at his reassurance, although she didn't really believe it. "He's in a coma, Duncan. He might never wake up. It happens."

"I know." He frowned. "They say in hospitals that talking is the thing to do. Let him know you're here. Maybe try and get through to his subconscious."

"I've heard that." She nodded. "But we've been talking to him, and it hasn't done any good so far." Her eyes travelled to the VR equipment on the desk across the room. "There might be a way though…"

"Take him into VR? Are you sure it would work?"

"Why not? It worked on my mother. Oliver's only in a coma. She was already in VR."

"I guess…" He frowned. "Where would you take him?"

"Somewhere familiar." She looked up, suddenly excited. "I could take him into his own past, Duncan! Into his memory! That way it would all be familiar. Something would be bound to strike a chord. It might be just the kick start that his subconscious needs." She ran to her computer, and began to get things ready. "The basic program might need a little adjustment…"

Duncan smiled at her sudden enthusiasm. "Be careful, Syd," he told her. "You know what Oliver would say if he knew what you're planning."

"He'd shoot me," she replied, only half joking. "But do you have any better ideas?"

"No." He shrugged. "Look, you're right. I really should be getting back to the others. Do you want me to come back later, when you've got everything ready?"

"No. I'll be okay. Come over tomorrow, see if it's worked." She smiled at him, feeling better than she had done since she had first dashed over to see Oliver sprawled unconscious on the sidewalk. "This will work, Dunc. I know it will. It has to."

"Sure it will." Duncan smiled. "I really hope it does, Syd. He's an aggravating pain-in-the-neck, but I kinda think I like him. In a way."

Sydney grinned. She knew exactly what Duncan meant. She stood up and followed him to the door.

"Be careful," she told him. "Make sure you're not followed."

"Sure." He sighed. "And so the brave and gallant Sir Duncan rode off one more into the horizon…" He gave her an extravagant bow. "Just be careful how you go in Sir Oliver's mind, my lady. You never know what you might find."

"I'll be careful." She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Say hi to the others for me."

"Will do." With that he was gone, and Sydney hurried back over to her equipment, barely pausing to lock the door on the way. She set to work, her mind closed to the rest of the world. This was going to work. She didn't even pause to consider where Oliver's memory might take her.


She blinked, and looked around. A medium sized woman in a floral print dress was showing her around a small, well kept house, which seemed to come from another decade. Fifties, she guessed, although the calendar on the wall said 1964. Still, this woman didn't look as though she was in line with the latest fashions.

"I'm so happy that you answered our advertisement," the woman was saying. "I was beginning to doubt that we'd ever get a response."

"Oh." Sydney had no idea what advertisement she was supposed to have replied to, but she was happy to play along. She had got plenty of experience in this sort of thing, since opening up the whole VR-centred chapter of her life. "It sounded good to me."

They both smiled at each other, and the woman sighed. "All the same, it was good of you to come for an interview so quickly. We need to get a nanny as soon as possible, you see. My husband is away so often, and I have so much to do. You'll be wanting to meet my son of course."

"Er, yes. Of course." Sydney smiled, and wondered just what had convinced whatever part of her subconscious VR-5 was connected to that she was qualified to be a nanny. "Lead on."

"Right away." The woman gave another charming smile - were all British people so polite, Sydney wondered - and began to head down a small corridor. "He's very advanced for his age, but he's still only very young. My husband's employers have offered to fund special schooling for him, but I don't like that idea very much."

"I understand perfectly." Sydney followed the woman through a door and into a bedroom, smiling as she looked about at the contents. Pictures of comic characters - Dan Dare and Flash Gordon for the most part - decorated the walls, mixing with the somewhat incongruous figures of various Disney characters. A scattering of children's books lay around on the floor, with copies of The Eagle and National Geographic mixed in amongst them. She wondered if the kid really read the latter, or if he just liked the pictures. A bed, rather hastily made, as if by a small child with rather more important things on his mind, stood against one wall, and lying on top of the coverlet was a small red sneaker, its laces trailing and slightly muddy. A pair of socks rested beside it, and she smiled. This brought back so many memories. Did all children's bedrooms have so very much in common?

Against the far wall of the room stood an old, slightly battered piano, and seated at it was the subject of the woman's indulgent smile. He was unaware of their presence, playing some piece of classical music. It struck a chord in Sydney's memory, but she couldn't quite recall the title. His style was a little childlike, but it was fluent, and she could see real rhythm in the boy's movements. There was plenty of natural talent there. For a moment she was struck by the maturity of the scene; then she also took in the bare feet dangling far above the ground, and realised that she was really looking at the back view of a boy of no more than six years old.

The woman went up to him, and touched him lightly on the shoulder. "This lady is here to see about becoming your new nanny," she said gently. "Come and say hello, Oliver."

Oliver… The name made something jolt inside Sydney, and she caught her breath sharply. Calling up a smile from somewhere inside her, she looked straight towards the boy as he turned to face her. A mop of unruly dark hair, slightly wavy and apparently virginal where combs were concerned, topped a face full of childlike curiosity. Dark green eyes looked up at her, filled with an innocence that startled her momentarily. The Oliver that she knew was somebody who seemed to know nothing of innocence. It was an alien concept to him, bred out by years of hard training, and violent escapades around much of the globe.

"Hi," she offered, and the boy frowned slightly, picking up on her accent even through that short syllable.

"Hello." He smiled suddenly. "What's your name?"

"Sydney," she told him, only just preventing herself from using an alias. "It probably sounds a little odd."

He shrugged. "It's a name. I'm Oliver." He grinned. "I don't like my name either, but it's what my parents gave me."

Sydney laughed slightly. This flippant, quick minded child did remind her a little of the man he was to become. "That's what parents are for," she said conspiratorially. The small boy giggled at that, and cast a sidelong glance up at his mother. "Do I have to practice any more today, mother? I've done both the pieces Miss Davis set for me. Honestly."

"Alright, Oliver. Why don't you show Sydney the rest of the house, and the garden." The woman - Oliver's mother, and therefore, Sydney presumed, Mrs Sampson - smiled at Sydney, and the American returned the acknowledgement. It looked as though she had got the job.

It seemed that days passed in the house, maybe even weeks. Sydney never had any true idea of the passage of time in VR - there seemed no real pattern to it, and she had to live the seconds as they came - in whatever order. Oliver was an unassuming boy, and she rather enjoyed watching him, either at the piano, or reading. Mrs Sampson was rarely about, and of Mr Sampson she saw no sign. She tried asking Oliver about him, but the small boy merely shrugged.

"He's working," he said, as if that explained it all. "He gets very busy, and has to go away a lot." Sydney didn't press the issue. VR would reveal what it revealed, no matter how cryptic and frustrating it could sometimes be.

Once, when she took Oliver to the park, she realised how very similar he was, in some ways, to the man she was to know, thirty years in the future. He stood aloof from the other children, never joining in their games. He was clearly a loner, which fitted in with her own thoughts about him; the shadowy figure standing on the sidelines. The other children watched him as well, but they never invited him to join them, just as though they knew that he would refuse and walk away.

Only one boy approached Oliver. He was tall, and aged about ten. Sydney watched him as he sauntered up, clearly believing her to be out of effective hearing range.

"Hey titch. Are you looking at something?"

"I beg your pardon?" Oliver blinked up at him, as though dragged back from a reverie.

"I said, are you looking at something?"

Oliver glanced past the boy, gesturing vaguely as he did so. The answer was obvious; of course he was watching something. The boy grinned.

"Well why don't you find something else to gaze at, tiny? If I was you I'd go find a healthier past time."

Oliver didn't so much as flinch, and Sydney paused in her considerations of whether or not to offer him her assistance. "If I was you I wouldn't watch so much television. Don't you realise it rots your brain?"

The boy blinked, then his face showed rage.

"What did you say?" he asked, clearly outraged. Oliver sighed theatrically.

"I said - Oh, never mind. If you can't tell when you're being insulted there's no point in repeating myself."

The taller boy raised an arm, then his eye caught Sydney's and he thought better of it. Scowling fiercely he began to walk away. Sydney watched him go, amazed. What was she witnessing here, she wondered, and more importantly, why? Was she seeing the Oliver she knew, somehow superimposed into the small child that he had once been, or was she merely becoming a part of his memory? She suspected the latter.

Oliver turned, and began to walk back towards her. He didn't pause, but merely glanced up at her as he passed. "We have to go back to the house," he said, his tone matter-of-fact. Too matter-of-fact, she thought to herself. Where had this kid's childhood gone?

"Why?" She caught him up, and began to walk along beside him.

"Because the church clock just struck," he said vaguely. "It's four o'clock, and my father is coming home today."

"He is?" Sydney didn't remember hearing any such thing, but Oliver just nodded.

"Before he left he said he'd come back today. It is the twelfth of August?"


"Then he's coming back today." He began to pull ahead, and Sydney smiled. Inordinately mature or not, he was obviously excited at the prospect of seeing his father. Perhaps he was just a normal child.

The back door to the house stood open, and the pair walked in together. The house was in disarray, and Sydney reached for Oliver, intending to protect him. He threw off her hand and walked further into the house. Mrs Sampson stood in the hall, a bag in one hand. She had been hurriedly collecting things together, and looked tired and drawn. Oliver stared at her, outraged.

"No," he said, his voice suddenly sounding small, and very young. "Not again."

"Be a good boy, Oliver." Mrs Sampson sounded sharp. "Go to your room. Take what you need."


"Now Oliver!" The words were harsh, and shouted, and Oliver reacted immediately, dashing into his room. Sydney watched him go, and Mrs Sampson seemed to notice her for the first time.

"Oh… Sydney." She smiled tentatively. "I'm sorry, but there's been a change of plan. We won't be needing you any more. My husband has been… relocated, and as you can see, we are going to join him. I'm not sure where yet, but…" She gestured around. "Everything's such a mess. We shall have to leave most of it behind. Collect it later I mean."

"Yes, of course," Sydney said, although she imagined that all of these things would be left behind permanently. Mrs Sampson looked as though this was a familiar routine; as though she knew all about broken covers and betrayals. "I'll er - see to Oliver."

"Thankyou." Mrs Sampson seemed to forget about her instantly, and Sydney went straight to Oliver's room. The small boy stood, a rucksack in one hand, gazing forlornly about him. She saw some of his books sticking out of the bag, and a few of his comics.

"It's not fair," he muttered, although she had thought that he was not aware of her presence. "This always happens, just when I get to like a place. We always have to leave."


"Because…" He shrugged. "It's my father's work. He has to travel a lot, and sometimes he likes us to travel too. My mother always gets scared. She looks over her shoulder a lot. Sometimes she says that we have to move faster, because somebody is after us." He sighed. "My father says we always have to be alert. Never relax."

Sydney's eyes widened. Oliver Sampson's father had been a member of the Committee, of course; she knew that. She had never imagined that the rest of the family had become involved as well though. The Committee is everywhere, she thought dolefully, remembering the extraordinary effects that it had managed to have on her own life, long before she had even become aware of its existence.

She watched the small boy stuff a couple of shirts into his rucksack, then he sighed. Obviously it hurt to leave everything else behind. He was clearly very much aware that he would never see any of it again. The Committee probably bought them all new stuff, for each new house. She wondered how carefully they thought about which books to buy for the son of their operative; how much they were trying to guide his development. They had guided her's, one way or the other; even if the memories of the car crash had not been their idea; even if the years of solitude had not been their idea, it had all been because of them.

"I'll miss you." Oliver did not look at her as he spoke, and for a second she thought that her heart might break. After all this, after seeing the things that he had been put through as a child, perhaps she would be more understanding towards him as an adult. Then again, she thought, he was still an infuriating bastard, and deserved everything she threw at him, tough childhood or not.

"Maybe I can come too," she suggested. The boy shook his head.

"No way. They'd never allow that. We can never know who to trust, you see, so nobody can know where we're going next. Even my mother won't know until we get there."

"Why ever not?" Sydney suspected that she already knew the answer to that one. What one thing did the Committee hold in more regard than paranoia? Except perhaps for cold-bloodedness.

"Because security is paramount. We can never trust anybody but ourselves." Oliver shrugged his small shoulders. It was obviously something that he had learned by heart. Whoever had taught him the phrase evidently didn't care how far he understood it, or its implications.

"I see." Sydney turned away slightly, and then swung round again as Mrs Sampson entered the room. She paid no attention to the things her son was packing, but merely gave the room a quick glance over.

"Hurry up, please, Oliver. We have to go to the airport."

"But what about father? He said he was coming here today."

"Your father has been sent on somewhere else. We can't see him yet." Mrs Sampson absentmindedly dusted at a bookshelf. "We'll probably see him again in a few months."

"But he promised…" Oliver looked downcast. "He said--"

"Never mind what he said!" Mrs Sampson looked exasperated. "If you've finished packing, go and wait in the car. And speak to nobody. You don't know who we can trust."

Oliver stared up at her, and Sydney saw the rebellion in his eyes. Oliver Sampson had always been a wildcard, she could see that.

"I don't want to go!" he muttered hotly. "You can't make me go!" And he dropped his rucksack on the floor, racing from the room. The back door slammed shut.

Mrs Sampson heaved a sigh. "It's not easy," she said, more to herself than to Sydney. "But these things have to be done."

"Security is paramount," Sydney offered her lamely. "I'll go after Oliver."

"Thankyou dear." Mrs Sampson's mind was obviously already on other things. Sydney took her leave without another word. No wonder Oliver had grown up to be so weird.

She headed for the park, the only place other than the house which played any major part in young Oliver's life. She could not see him there, or any of the other children for that matter. That seemed odd. She wondered if they were all Committee families; whether the whole village was populated by the Committee as part of some bizarre exercise in security. Perhaps they had all been called away at the same time as the Sampsons. She stopped the thought before it went any further. If she became any more paranoid she was going to be a contender for the padded room next to Oliver's when the authorities finally caught up with him. Or maybe they'd lock her up on her own, and just send her paranoid playmate back to Britain in a straitjacket. Idly she wondered if he had an up to date visa, or even if he had ever arrived in America legally.

What the hell are you thinking of Sydney Bloom? Pulling her mind back into line, Sydney shook her head. Oliver's immigration arrangements for the nineteen nineties were hardly of importance in a British playground in the nineteen sixties. Even if they might be a way of teasing him when she finally got back to the real world. She hurried past the climbing frames and the swings, past the see-saws and the roundabout, and headed for the small copse of trees nearby where the teenagers went to smoke. She heard the excited voices of numerous small children as she approached, but by the time she reached the trees, all had gone silent.

She pushed past the undergrowth into the centre of the copse, and saw a familiar small shape sitting on the grass. He had his back to her, but as she approached he whirled around and onto his feet in the blink of an eye. Some things never change, she thought wryly. In that brief moment she wouldn't have been at all surprised if the small boy had drawn a gun.

"Sydney." He blinked. "I thought --"

"Thought what? That the bad guys were after you?" She looked around. "Where have the others gone?"

"Home I guess." He grinned up at her suddenly, and she noticed the makings of a black eye.

"Oliver, did you come here to pick a fight with somebody?"

"Yep." He shrugged, and began to dust off his clothes. "Couldn't leave things unsettled, could I? My father says that you should never let anybody get the upper hand; and if you do then you should never let them keep it."

"Your father says a lot for somebody who's never at home." Sydney pointed back towards the house. "Get moving mister, and don't stop till you're back where you belong."

Oliver smiled, and suddenly looked more like thirty-six than just six. "Then I'll be moving a long time," he said softly, and was gone.

Sydney watched him until he was lost from sight amongst the trees. It was a long time before she felt like following, but when she eventually wandered back to the house it was to see Mrs Sampson ushering her boy into the car and driving away. Oliver glanced back once, and she smiled at him, but he was not looking at her. She realised that he was checking to make sure they were not being followed. For a second she wondered whether or not to be outraged at how the boy's childhood was being stolen away by the very people who were supposed to protect him, then she sighed. It wasn't as though it really mattered. It was all history to her anyway. The small boy being driven away into the distance was now a man, and was the reason why Sydney was here in the first place. She headed towards the house, and wandered in through the wide open front door, going straight for Oliver's room. The bed was still roughly made, magazines still lay about the floor, but this time there was an air of sadness present. She wandered over to the piano and played a few notes, and then noticed something lying on the floor nearby. It was a teddy bear, the fur faded where it had been hugged hard over the past six years. She wondered when Oliver would first notice that he had left it behind. Not that there was any chance of returning for it. She bent to pick it up, and the world exploded around her. Reality was always close at hand.


"Oliver?" Throwing off the visor, Sydney turned to Oliver without bothering to remove her gloves. There was no response. The agent still lay where he had been, unmoving for the last two days. "Oh Oliver. What's it going to take?" There was, of course, no answer, and she sighed, frustrated and disturbed by her failure. What if he never woke up? No, she couldn't think that. She was just going to have to try again.

"I'm sorry, Oliver," she whispered, wondering if he could hear, and if he was aware of her actions. Taking him into VR once would annoy him, but going in twice would send him crazy. Even if it saved his life he was likely to resent her actions. She began to set up the links again, and stared at her monitor for some time, pondering over where to go next. Finally she shrugged, and decided to go with chance. "Ready?" she asked the comatose form beside her. "Well here goes anyway…"


It was a school, she decided immediately. One of those large, ivy covered places that were always in films about turn of the century Britain, and made you wonder if such things really existed. She wandered up the drive, nodding at the teachers who passed her by. She couldn't help wondering if they were Committee members too, but scolded herself for being paranoid. She was starting to think like a Sampson.

Two boys of about sixteen nodded politely to her, and she returned the greeting, then suppressed a smile when she heard the lewd comments they made as soon as they thought they were beyond range. Times and places changed, she thought, but teenagers didn't. It was oddly comforting.

She entered the building and began to wander along corridors. There was an odd feeling to the school, and she realised as she looked through the doors that not all of them had rooms beyond them. Obviously Oliver's memories of this place were incomplete. In some places the corridor itself vanished, and she seemed to be walking in nothingness. She wondered how his memories of the house could have been so clear, when this place was little more than a shadow.

"Where are you Oliver?" she whispered, before the corridor ended at a large door. She opened it, and wandered into the room beyond. A large desk, far bigger than anything in reality, stood at one end of the room. The floor was non-existent, and there seemed to be no real walls; bookcases and cupboards marked out the territory, and paintings hung from nothingness.

"What do you have to say for yourselves?" A loud, sharp voice echoed about the strange non-room, and she glanced towards it. A big, powerfully built man stood in front of the desk. He was dressed in black teaching robes, and carried a cane in one hand; a truly fearsome image of an education system to be reckoned with. Sydney looked over at the targets of the question; two boys of about twelve years old. One was blond, the other dark, and she recognised him immediately. Green eyes radiated rebellion, and the growing bruises only helped to perpetuate the image of a dark, brooding delinquent. For some reason she thought of Sal Mineo in Rebel Without A Cause.

"Well?" The big man was waiting for an answer, and the blond boy responded guardedly.

"A little disagreement, sir," he said, speaking with a cut-glass accent that brought to mind The Famous Five. "I think it's fair to say that we've dealt with the situation. Right Sampson?"

"Yeah, sure." The dark eyes had lost none of their silent intensity, and Sydney stared back towards them, fascinated. She seemed to be invisible here, but was not going to question that. She moved closer, standing beside the boys.

"A disagreement?" The big man shook his head. "It looked more like brawl. Fighting shall be reserved for the ring, and then only during gym hours. Is that understood?"

"Perfectly, sir," the blond boy told him, his tone one of deference and respect. "I'm dreadfully sorry sir."

"Does the word 'creep' mean anything to you?" Sydney muttered, but the boy could not hear her, and of course made no reaction. Oliver made a disparaging noise.

"You were pretty sorry," he agreed. "Another few minutes and you'd have been really sorry."

"That's quite enough Sampson." The big man shook his head. "Are you going to tell me how this started?"

Oliver made no sound, but glanced away as if disgusted.

"Very well. In that case I have no choice but to consider you both equally responsible. You know what that means." The boys obviously knew only too well, for the blond one shifted awkwardly on his feet, eyeing the cane with trepidation.

"Now sir?" he asked, in a small voice. The big man shook his head.

"Hardly, Hopwood, hardly. Do you think I really want whimpering boys cluttering up my office? I have work to do. Go next door to Mister Falkirk."

"Mister Falkirk?!" Hopwood looked positively mortified. Falkirk obviously had a very strong arm. Oliver did not react to the news at all, except to head straight for the indicated door. He swung it open without knocking and vanished inside. Hopwood followed, looking decidedly shaky. The door shut.

"Doctor Milburn? Telegraph for you sir." A secretary had appeared from nowhere, and held a slip of paper out to the big man, who was now seated at his desk. He scanned the note, then scowled.

"Oh well. At least I shall be rid of him."

"Good or bad news sir?" the secretary asked.

"Depends on your point of view." Milburn shrugged, and shook the telegram. "Sampson's mother is dead. A hit and run it seems. His father has asked us to send him to this place." He squinted at the address printed on the paper. "It's some kind of school, apparently. In Canada. Seems that it's owned by the people that he works for. Just as well really. The boy is out of hand."

"All the same, it's a shame about Mrs Sampson," the secretary said. Milburn nodded.

"Yes, I suppose so. I've never met her though. To the best of my knowledge she and her husband never come here. The son is always collected and brought back by some chap… Friend of the family's I think. Abernathy, that's his name. Odd arrangement if you ask me."

"What will you tell the boy?" the secretary asked. Milburn shrugged.

"The truth of course. It never hurts. He's not a child anymore; must be damn nearly thirteen."

Sydney lowered her eyes. She had seen and heard enough here. She heard the sound of a door opening, and saw Oliver and Hopwood re-enter the room. Hopwood looked awkward, but the sullen look on Oliver's face was unchanged. Sydney watched Milburn dismiss the blond boy, and order Oliver to remain behind. She was amazed by the apparent lack of feeling that Milburn had for his pupil, but here and now she was insubstantial. To these people she did not even exist. She stared deep into Milburn's eyes. His lips were moving, but she could not hear any words. Obviously Oliver's memory was vague here too, and understandably so. She glanced towards the boy, seeing the broken, desolate look on his face. He hid it well, but it was clear to her eyes. She shook her head, watching him run from the room, his facade suddenly crumbling. She heard Milburn shout to him, but the words were indistinct. Ignoring it all she reached for the telegram.


In reality, nothing had changed. Tired and drained, Sydney wandered to the kitchen and made some coffee. It was good, strong stuff, but she hardly tasted it. Worry made her tense and miserable, and she kept staring at Oliver, hoping to see him move. At any moment, she told herself, his eyes would flicker, he would start to sit up, and he would growl something sullen or cryptic. She would do anything to hear one of his paranoid mutterings, or to watch him hunt for enemies in every shadow. But there was nothing. Even his earring seemed duller somehow, as if it had lost all of its shine.

"Phase three," she whispered to nobody in particular. "Come on Oliver, there's got to be some reaction some time. Next stop… whenever."


Loud voices echoed down a corridor, and laughs sounded about her. Sydney glanced around. She was in a room - a complete room this time. Posters decorated the walls. Star Wars next to Doctor Who on one wall. Numerous pictures of Queen on another. She recognised Adam Ant too, and the obligatory Jimi Hendrix. A bed was pushed up against the wall, covered by a plain and unremarkable duvet, and a woven rug lay on the floor. There was a piano too, she noticed, and as she became aware of it, she heard its music. There was a man seated at it, playing with a fluency and skill which touched her. A woman leaned against the side of the piano, listening intently as the music came to an end. She was tall, with reddish hair, and was about twenty two, Sydney guessed.

"Brilliant!" The woman embraced her companion delightedly. "You are so clever, Oliver."

"Not really. I forgot the middle bit and made it up."

"Well I didn't notice. I thought it was just fine. I wish I could play like that."

"You play great." The man stood up and hugged her happily. "You can play Great Balls Of Fire."

"True. But you can play Bohemian Rhapsody."

"True. But then I'm a genius. What's your excuse?" They both laughed.

"That's what I like about you, Oliver. Your modesty."

"I've cultivated it to perfection, haven't I? If only I could use my irresistible charms on your family."

The girl nodded. "I'm sorry about that. But we've been together for nearly three years now. They'll have to accept you eventually."

"I hope so." Oliver grinned. "And anyway, my father is just as bad. Refusing to meet you the other day in case you were a security risk. The man is paranoid."

"Well you've only recently stopped checking out of every window before you go to bed." The woman laughed teasingly. "What is it with your family and security?"

"I don't know. Must be something in the genes."

"I can't see anything wrong with them."

"With what?"

"Your genes. They look fine from where I'm standing." They both laughed, and Sydney began to wonder if she should take her leave before things became too embarrassing. At least they could not see her watching them.

"I'm glad you like them." Oliver wandered over to the window, glancing down into the street with a look that Sydney recognised. Surely he wasn't already involved with the espionage racket?

"What's wrong Oliver?" The girl had recognised the look too, and she went to stand beside him.

"Nothing." He smiled. "I was just checking that we'd really lost that man your father sent after us." The girl laughed.

"You mean poor Reginald. He's my father's chauffeur. Daddy probably sent him to make sure that we aren't living together."

"Some chance." Oliver gestured to the bed. "You're lucky to fit one person in that thing, and all the twin rooms are already taken by the married students." He gave a theatrical sigh. "And after graduation I'll be in a single bunk at Sandhurst for goodness knows how long."

"Not that long." She laughed. "Anyway, there's graduation to get through first. I have a lot of revision to do."

Oliver shook his head. "Laura… How many more times? You're a student. You get drunk, you throw up on the course books, and you pay somebody else to write all the essays. That is, provided you've got enough money left after you've paid the rent. You're a final year student, my dear. You should have got this figured out by now."

The girl - Laura - laughed. "Sorry. I was forgetting myself. Must be the heat."

"I should think so." They hugged briefly, and then Laura kissed Oliver on the cheek.

"Got to go, Oliver. I have a lecture at half twelve."

"Okay." He watched her go, and Sydney saw the softening of his eyes, his relaxed stance. It was all so different, so unusual. Her Oliver relaxed for nobody. Nothing. Times had changed him greatly. She took a final look around the room as she felt the walls fade away around her. A calendar hung on a hook nearby, and she read the date on it before it ceased to exist. Nineteenth of May, 1980.


It was autumn, at a guess. The sky was grey, and the world looked as though it was hanging onto the last vestiges of summer sun. Sydney was standing in a park, staring at a tree that was beginning to change colour. A bench stood beside her, and two men were sitting on it. She blinked. The change had been so sudden that she felt a little disorientated. This new scene had to be a continuation of the last one; a natural progression of whatever memory sequence she was caught up in. She watched the two men. One was in uniform, the other in a dark suit. A familiar ring glinted on his finger, and she blinked twice. Abernathy. She recognised him, even though he was a lot younger than the last time she had seen him.

"You don't realise what an opportunity you're missing, Ollie." Abernathy shifted position so that he could look directly at Oliver. "You must realise what bonuses there are in this line of work."

"I know. Really, I know. I've seen how my father's company looks after him, but I just don't think that security is my scene. I'm enjoying the army. It's fun."

"Can the army offer you a job for life, a pension better than most peoples' salaries and the sort of prospects most kids your age could only dream of?"

"No, probably not." Oliver smiled. "I'm sorry, Abernathy. I know you're offering me a great opportunity, and I do appreciate it. It's just not what I want. I don't want to be paranoid all my life. I don't want to see menace in every shadow, or death threats in every greeting. I don't want to spend the rest of my life sleeping with a gun under my pillow every night. I've seen how my father lives, and that's not what I want."

"That's not how it is for everybody, Oliver. I'm not paranoid. I'm not even armed most of the time."

Maybe not, but half of the passers by are probably undercover Committee men, Sydney thought, eyeing Abernathy with cold hatred. He was so convincing, so caring and gentle, and yet she knew all about how two faced and cold he was in reality.

"And what about the rest? I was lucky if I saw my father five or six times a year when I was a kid. I don't want that. I want a family, Abernathy. I don't want to have to go chasing off all the time, uproot them every few months because of some new security threat. I'm sorry. I'm joining the army."

Abernathy smiled. "Your choice Oliver," he said lightly. "I just hope it's the right one. I should hate for you to find that you've made the wrong decision."

"I haven't." Oliver smiled. "I haven't exactly got the support of Laura's family, but we're going to get married anyway. We're going to have kids." He grinned. "Maybe we'll name one after you."

Abernathy laughed, surprising Sydney with the genuine humour in his eyes. "He'd thank you for that," he said, and stood up. "I must be off. Take care of yourself, my boy. And don't forget what I've said."

Oliver shook his head, amused. "I won't," he said. "But it won't make any difference. I'm not joining the firm."

"Whatever." Abernathy smiled at him; the warm smile of a father looking at his son. Then he was gone, and the scenery followed him.


Sydney was sitting in a cinema, in a red fold-up chair without enough leg room. There was a big screen in front of her, and her view was unrestricted. The entire auditorium was empty except for herself, and Oliver, sitting beside her. She glanced towards the screen. It was one of those weepies, she realised with disgust. A pale form could be seen in a hospital bed, and in the distance two doctors were discussing the case. Sydney groaned. She caught something about an ectopic pregnancy, and something else about a haemorrhage, but her mind skipped the rest. She stole a look at Oliver, and was amazed to see that he was absorbed by it all. He even looked emotional. She had never taken him for a fan of films like this.

"Have you told the husband yet?" one of the doctors was saying.

"Husband? Oh, they're not married." The other one sighed. "But what can I say anyway? We don't really know what's caused all this. I don't feel that I can just go and tell him that we can't save his fiancee, and then not be able to tell him why."

"I know. It's rough." The first doctor nodded at the bed in the background. "Watch it; he's back."

The picture shifted, to show a close up of the woman in the bed. Her hair was lank, its original colour unrecognisable, her skin was deathly pale, and she looked small and frail. A man knelt beside her bed, taking her hand and watching her with sorrowful eyes. It was Oliver. Sydney blinked. The woman in the bed was Laura, but she was hardly recognisable as the tall, lively young woman who had been talking earlier. The Oliver on the screen was saying something, staring at the lifeless form, but no sound came from the speakers. Laura did not respond. Only the bleeping of the heart monitor broke the silence. Sydney caught her breath, and reached out for the Oliver sitting beside her. He was not there. She turned round, and saw him walking away down the aisle, heading for the green exit sign. On the screen, the bleeping of the monitor became a single flat note, just as the cinema exit door swung shut behind Oliver Sampson. The cinema faded away.


She was cramped. There was little room to move, and she was aware that her arms were crossed on her chest. She was in a coffin. Sydney struggled, unable to break free. She quieted herself, trying to be calm in the knowledge that none of this was real. It didn't help much. There was a window in the lid of the coffin, and she could look out at the faces of the mourners. None of them seemed able to see her, as if the window did not exist in whatever scene they were witnessing. She looked down the ranks of black suited men, and sombrely attired women. This had to be Laura's funeral. She looked for Oliver. He was standing a long way away, hanging back from the others, wearing black jeans and a black leather jacket. His hair was windblown and untidy and he had not shaved in several days. Sydney remembered Laura talking about how her family disapproved of him, and guessed that he would not be welcome at the funeral. She felt for him, all on his own.

She heard words, speeches and readings from the Bible, and then felt a lurching sensation. Suddenly the faces were receding, and she could see steep earth walls around her. They were putting the coffin into the grave.

"No!" Panic overwhelmed her, and she banged at the window, screaming for somebody to hear her. Somebody had to. But nobody did. She watched the faces above her as they turned away and left, and then she lay there, alone and afraid, hoping that the picture would soon fade away. It didn't.

Time passed. Eventually, when the other mourners were long gone, she saw Oliver standing above her. He was staring down at her, his expression unreadable. His green eyes, with their unearthly VR induced glow, looked unfocused, and she could see that the last few days had been very hard on him.

"I quit," he said, his voice sounding distant and empty. "I handed in my notice. Didn't feel like going back to all that taking orders, and wearing uniforms. This other job came up. I thought I'd try my hand at something a bit different. Still uniforms and orders, but a bit more of a challenge. SAS. Or maybe I'll even join the Secret Service. Be a spy." He smiled, a wan imitation of the smiles he had used for Laura in the past. "You always said James Bond was your favourite super hero." He shook his head. "I've got to go, Laura. The er - the people with the spades are starting to look a little restless. I er… I gotta go." He frowned, and dug his hand into his pocket, pulling something out. "Your family handled all the arrangements, so I couldn't put this on you like you wanted. You'd better have it though." He threw something down and then walked away.

"No, Oliver wait!" Sydney struggled again. "Help! I'm in here!" There was no response and she scowled at the sky, trying not to get too scared. The thing that Oliver had thrown down had landed on the window, and she moved her head to get a better look at it. It was a locket, and the landing had jarred it open. Two tiny pictures were inside; one of Oliver and Laura together and the other of them both with somebody else. Abernathy again. He was acting paternal, smiling into the camera, and she felt her stomach crawl. If only Oliver had known about him back then, maybe the future would have been different for everybody. But then, if it hadn't been Abernathy pulling the strings it would undoubtedly have been somebody else.

Something hit the coffin and skittered about. Sydney frowned, wondering what it was. It came again and again, until finally some hit the window, and she realised what was happening. They were filling the grave in.

"No!" Sydney was suddenly more afraid than she had been in a very long time. "No! I'm still in here! Please somebody!" There was no response. A thought struck her and sent chill fingers up her spine. If all this was a virtual slant on reality, was she taking the place of Laura in more ways than one? She remembered how Abernathy had faked his own death, and shuddered. They wouldn't have done, would they? Killing Laura was certainly not beyond them. She didn't like to think that they might have stooped so low as to bury her alive. Many drugs were untraceable, and made it so much easier to fake a natural death than most other methods… The paranoia was growing worse, she realised, but there seemed to be plenty of arguments in its favour. Another spadeful of earth hit the coffin, and the light coming through the window was abruptly cut off. She began to shiver. Gradually the world was slipping further and further away from her, and she began to fight harder and harder. She was nearing hysteria when her feet struck the end of the coffin, and the swirling whirl of opening links sucked her back to reality.


Oliver had moved. His head had definitely moved, and as she watched him she thought she saw his hand twitch. Immediately she tore off the VR gear and knelt beside him.

"Oliver, can you hear me? Hey, Oliver?" There was no response, but her relief was overwhelming. It was working; it had to be. Somehow she was getting through to him, dragging him out of the coma. She made some more coffee, although it had only been a few seconds since her last cup, and slammed a quick meal in the microwave. She had no idea what the time was, but it seemed like about time for a break. If there had been no further response from Oliver by the morning she would take him into VR again. There had to be some way to make him wake up.


Sydney awoke, feeling stiff and heavy headed. She stretched, and realised that she had fallen asleep kneeling on the floor beside Oliver's bed. She hadn't realised that she had been that tired, although there was always a certain amount of jet lag where VR was concerned. A knock on the door startled her, and she stood up, wondering whether or not to see who the visitor was. Her imagination told her all kinds of unpleasant possibilities, but the voice that called to her was comfortingly familiar.

"Syd? Syd, you in there?"

"Duncan!" She hurried to the door and opened it, pulling her old friend in and shutting the door almost before he was completely through it. He laughed at that, and then looked over at Oliver.

"Any change?"

She shrugged. "Yes, a little. I think. I hate this. We should just take him to hospital."

"Yeah, right. You want to live with that? This is Oliver we're talking about, Syd. It's not like we found some innocent civilian lying in the middle of the street. You know what he's like about hospitals. With good reason."

"I know." She shivered. "I just keep remembering… when that car hit him. The way his head hit the pavement. People die when that happens, Dunc. I'm not sure we're really helping him by keeping him here."

"We're doing the best we can." Duncan checked Oliver's pulse. It had been three days now, and he hated to think what was going to happen if he didn't wake up soon. If they couldn't get a line in to rehydrate him, he was going to die of thirst.

"But is it enough?"

"Damned if I know." Duncan sighed. "Look, Syd. I'm going to go to the drug store. See if I can pick up something that might help. I'll be back soon as I can, okay?"

"Yeah. Thanks Dunc." She hugged him briefly, then glanced back to the unconscious figure on the bed. "He moved last night, you know. I'm sure of it."

"But there's been nothing since?"

"Not that I'm aware of. It's like he's locked somewhere inside, and can't get out." She stared at the ground. "He's going to die, isn't he. If we can't wake him up soon."

Duncan frowned. He saw little point in lying to her, but he hated to be too brutally honest.

"Yeah," he said eventually. "It looks that way. He can't live for long like that. Not without proper treatment."

"And we can't get him that without rising his life - all our lives." She sighed. "We can't let him die, Dunc. We need him." I think I need him, but I'm not sure why.

"Yeah, I know." Duncan remembered all the times when he had felt anger, frustration and even hate towards the Committee man. Despite all that, he did not like to imagine losing him. The world would certainly seem a lot less safe without Oliver's darkly brooding presence. "I'd better get going. See you soon." He frowned. "You'd better not try going into VR again until I'm back. I don't like you doing it alone. He's in a coma, and there's no telling what is going on his head at the moment."

"It's my head that matters, not his. I control VR." She had always believed that in the past, but somehow wasn't too sure of it now.

"Not when you're trawling about through his memories it isn't. Probably." He frowned and shook his head. "Just wait, okay? I'll be back in a sec. Keep the door closed."

She laughed. "I've managed so far."

"Yeah, I know." He grinned, and left, pulling the door shut behind him. She watched through the window until he was gone from sight, and then sighed, turning back to the bed to watch its silent inhabitant.

"Can you hear me Oliver?" she asked. "If so, then I'm sorry. I know you hate this, but I really don't see any other way. I can't just sit here and leave you like this." She began to connect up the VR equipment again. "I know Duncan said to wait, but - well, I'll be long finished with this scenario by the time he gets back." She typed out a few brief instructions, then began to dial the now familiar number once more.


She was in a corridor. It was grey. Grey walls, grey floor, grey ceiling. Even the people who were walking about were grey, skin included. Even their eyes were grey. She turned about, and found that the corridor ended suddenly in a door. A grey door, needless to say, with a single window set into it. She peered through. A grey room lay beyond, with a floor of stone flagging and a feeling of unrelenting chill. Two men, dressed in black uniforms, were confronting a third man, who was bound to a chair. They were shouting at him in a foreign language. Sydney tentatively identified it as something European, but she couldn't be entirely sure. After all, she thought, she couldn't be expected to be a linguist as well as a computer genius, could she?!

"I don't know," the third man said, sounding tired. Sydney recognised his voice without surprise. Oliver Sampson. He said something else in another language, which Sydney assumed was the same thing, revoiced for the benefit of his interrogators, in a language that they could better understand.

One of the other men said something, sounding sarcastic, and back handed his prisoner across the face. Sydney saw Oliver's chair rock dangerously from the force of the blow, and had to stop herself from dashing to intervene. The second interrogator said something to his companion, and the first man shrugged. Without further speech he began to unfasten the bonds which tied Oliver to the chair.

"You can go back to your cell," the second man said, his voice slow and heavily accented. "We try again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow."

"Whatever you say." Oliver allowed himself to be led to the door of his cell. He made no attempt to break free, although Sydney was sure that he would not be too disheartened by the handcuffs on his wrists. The cell door opened and Sydney blinked as her perspective altered alarmingly. Suddenly the walls were white, the floor was white. Even the two interrogators were white. Only she and Oliver remained in colour, his dark green eyes, and the blood on his face providing a startling contrast to the whiteness of the surroundings.

"Hello," he said, grinning pleasantly at her. The two interrogators laughed, and Sydney got the impression that they knew her. She was obviously taking the place of somebody else in Oliver's memories, as she had done when she had been his nanny, in 1964.

"Look all you like," one of the men said, sounding amused. "She never let anyone touch."

"There may be a first time." Oliver grinned at Sydney, although she wasn't sure it was her he was seeing, or whoever she was supposed to be. "I have this incredible charm, you see. Women just can't resist me."

"Huh." The two men began to push their prisoner down the corridor. The other people had vanished, and now there was just a long, empty expanse of white space leading into the distance. "You have to practice on the rats now."

"Not necessarily." With a sudden flick of his wrist, Oliver freed one hand from the cuffs and swung the other hand in a wild arc. The dangling cuffs struck one of the interrogators on the forehead, sending a blazing red streak of blood spraying into the air, dazzling in the whiteness. The second man reacted at once, throwing a blow Oliver's way which he was not able to duck. Without thinking, Sydney pulled the gun which she had somehow known was at her waist, and used it as a club to send the man to the floor. He did not get up.

"Brilliant!" Oliver bent to find some keys for his cuffs, then grinned and offered his hand to Sydney. "I was wondering when you'd make your move. Oliver Sampson, Agent 601."

"Er… hi ." Sydney smiled, unsure how to respond. She wasn't certain what her name was supposed to be. "How did you know who I was?"

"They told me what your cover would be." He grinned. "They also told me you'd be a pleasant surprise, but then after Martin Farrell, anyone would be."

"And am I a pleasant surprise?"

"Do you chain smoke woodbines and like to eat strawberry yoghurt sandwiches with green pickles?"


"Then you're a pleasant surprise." He was obviously not going to elucidate. "I've heard a lot about you, and it's a pleasure to be working with you at last, Alex. Can I call you that?"

Alex… Why was she not surprised? "Yes, please do." She frowned. "Er… Oliver… Are we going to go somewhere, or are we just going to stand around here all day, and wait for somebody to come and arrest us? I mean, aren't we supposed to try and escape or something?"

He frowned. "Escape is good. We could try that, certainly. Any ideas?"

"Not really no. I was hoping you had one. This was your idea."

"True. Up to a point." He grinned again, quite charmingly. "I suppose we could try the direct approach." He bent to pick up a gun from one of the fallen guards, and tested its weight in his hand. "Oh well. It's not a Walther PPK, but I guess it'll do."

Sydney blinked at him. Was he being serious? He grinned, and adjusted his clothing slightly, trying to look a little less dishevelled. He was dressed, she noticed, in jeans and a black leather jacket. Not exactly her idea of spy gear, but then he wasn't exactly her idea of a spy, and never had been.

"Lead on," she told him. The gun in her own hand felt right, as though it were meant to be there, which disconcerted her. She had never felt right about weapons. For now, though, she was willing to allow herself to be carried away by the power of the fantasy. As Oliver began to jog down the corridor she followed him without hesitation. She didn't even notice that the colour was beginning to drain back into the world.


The corridors were all alike, and the people in them were more or less faceless. Nobody questioned them, nobody looked their way. Sydney kept her gun in her fist, wondering if she would be able to use it if she had to. She had to keep reminding herself that this was not real, as she often had to do in VR. It was all too easy to be caught up in the dream.

"Where are we going?" she asked eventually. Oliver glanced back at her.

"Front entrance," he said, without slowing down.

"We're going to walk out the front door?"

"It's either that or jump out a window, and there aren't any windows below the fourth floor." He grinned. "Now call me old fashioned, but I don't like to jump to my death with a lady on our first date."

"Oh. Okay." She frowned. "Why is nobody stopping us?"

"Search me." He shrugged. "Probably just technicians. They won't try anything. Initiative isn't exactly rewarded around here you know." He paused to open a door. "Okay, careful now." He pushed his gun at her. "Hold this. Don't talk to anybody unless you have to."

Sydney took the proffered weapon, trying to react as she thought Alex might. It was not easy to think like a veteran secret agent with suspected Committee connections, but the thought amused her, if nothing else. She put away her own gun, and kept Oliver's pointed at him. He lowered his head slightly, acting the part of the sullen prisoner.

Slowly they walked through the door. On the other side a number of guards were standing around talking. They looked up in surprise as Sydney entered with her 'captive'. One or two of the guards leered, both at her and at the sight of an imprisoned foreign agent. Somebody shouted something, but Sydney did not catch the words. Oliver hissed something under his breath, but she did not hear that either. She guessed that she was probably glad to have missed it.

"Going upstairs, Sampson?" One of the guards appeared in front of the pair, a broad grin on his face. "They should leave you down here a little longer. We'd soon get you to talk."

"In your dreams, pal." Oliver pushed past the man, but immediately found his way blocked again. This time the guard had found a friend, and the two men represented an immovable obstacle. Oliver grinned back at Sydney.

"I call these two Chip and Dale," he said. "We're old friends." Sydney managed not to smile, but wished that Oliver would shut up. He was purposely tempting fate. Somehow she did not feel as scared as she felt she ought to be, but that was not terribly comforting.

"Stay a while and play with us, Sampson," the second of the two men suggested. "You don't have to go see the big men upstairs. We supply all your interrogation needs."

Oliver glanced back at Sydney, and she gathered that this was her signal to move. She opened her mouth to tell the two guards to get out of the way, but, although she thought the words in English, they came out in some other language.

"Get moving," she ordered them, wondering what the hell the language she was speaking was, and how on earth she knew how to speak it. "I have to get him upstairs in a hurry. Framling is waiting for him." Who the hell is Framling? She thought to herself, but the two guards reacted immediately to the sound of the name. They moved aside in an instant, and the two fugitives resumed their escape. As they closed the door and found themselves once more in an empty corridor, Oliver laughed, and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Nice work," he said. "But don't leave it so long next time."


They began to walk along again, and Oliver glanced back over his shoulder. "Who's Framling?"

"Can't tell you. It's classified." They both laughed, and Sydney handed Oliver his gun back. It concerned her that she seemed able to speak an entirely unfamiliar language with ease, and it also worried her that she had been able to come out with the name of a foreign agent. Somehow Oliver's memories of Alex seemed to be infecting her. Part of her was Alex, part of their knowledge was shared. It was almost scary, but she had known VR to be very real before. Surely this was nothing different?

"Where to now?" she asked.

"Here." He nodded just ahead, to where the corridor widened out. "Reception."

"Reception?" She shook her head, confused. "Where are all the battalions of guards?"

"They tell you they were well manned?" Oliver grinned. "This place is seriously under funded. It's only a temporary holding area. The rest of the building is dedicated to research." He looked suddenly serious. "If you'd have left it any longer before you made contact I'd have been sent to the maximum security prison in the next sector."

"Sorry. It took a while to handle my end of the mission." Sydney blinked. Where the hell had that come from?

"You did get the plans, though?"

"Right here." She tapped a pocket, confused. Plans? What plans? Somehow her body seemed to know more than she did, for her hand reached into the pocket and pulled out a small canister. "It's all in here, on film."

"Nice work." Oliver began to move forward again. "We'd better be going again. They'll be finding those two unconscious guards before long, and we'll be a little disadvantaged if that gets out."

"Well put." Sydney raised her gun, and found herself automatically checking the clip. "Let's go."

They walked forwards carefully, keeping tightly alert. Oliver took the lead, edging slowly towards the reception area. Once there he paused, then grinned back at his companion, straightened his jacket, and began to walk purposefully towards the door. Sydney followed him, wondering whether this plan came anywhere near the Top Ten of Stupid Ideas. She couldn't believe that the guards in reception were honestly going to let the pair walk straight out through the doors. A woman in an officer's uniform, perhaps, but not a man who clearly did not look like he belonged there.

"Hey!" As if in answer to her thoughts, one of the guards stepped forward. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Home?" Oliver suggested. "I'll send you a postcard." The guard drew his gun.

"Stay there," he ordered.

"No thanks." Reacting like lightning, Sydney grabbed Oliver's shoulder, and pulled him down behind the reception desk, raising her gun at the same time. She fired three shots in quick succession, and watched the guard go down, silenced forever. She breathed in sharply, stunned by what she had done, then fired at another guard who had appeared as if from nowhere. He grabbed at his shoulder, blood seeping between his fingers, and sunk to the floor, face grey.

"Nice work!" Oliver straightened up to peer over the edge of the counter, but she pushed him down again as another two guards appeared, guns blazing. A bullet took a chunk out of the reception desk, and a large splinter of wood grazed Sydney's head. She gasped, and reached up her hand to touch the sore spot, only to find that her fingers came away covered in blood.

"What the-?" She stared at her hand, and at her own blood, unreally bright and red in her VR environment. This shouldn't be happening. In a sudden panic she began to reach out for all of the objects in the vicinity; the telephone, a secretary's notepad, a handful of pencils. She even gripped Oliver by the wrist.

"What are you doing?" he asked her, confused by her sudden activity.

"Looking for…" She allowed the sentence to trail off, aware that she couldn't finish it. "Nothing. Really." She checked her gun for ammunition. "What do we do now?"

"Search me. I thought you were in charge." He grinned appreciatively. "You were great, by the way. The way you--"

"Not now, Oliver." She turned to look up above the desk, and dropped quickly back down onto the floor as a bullet thwacked into the wood beside her head. "Damn. There's four of them there now. I thought you said they were under funded."

"Sorry." He checked his own gun. "What do you say? I'll take the two on the left if you'll take the ones on the right."

"Okay." She allowed a certain measure of dubiousness to colour her voice, but tensed herself ready to make her move. Her body was moving almost entirely of its own accord now, and she knew that what she herself was thinking would make little difference. Here, in this VR excursion, she was what Oliver saw her as, at least in part.

"Ready? On three." A scene from Lethal Weapon flashed through Sydney's mind, but she nodded all the same.

"I'm ready."

"Good. One, two, three!"

They leapt to their feet as one, and Sydney fired her gun. She was unaware how many shots she fired, but saw the two men who had become the sole recipients of her attention fall to the ground. She glanced over at Oliver. He had felled both men with two, typically no nonsense, shots. He glanced at them both and scowled.

"One's a bull's eye, but I was a good five millimetres out on the other. I think I'm slipping."

"Oliver…" She shook her head in exasperation and raced for the door. "Can we please get a move on?"

"Certainly, mon cherie." He joined her at the door and glanced it over. "Hmm. Electronic lock. Very impressive. You need at least three different combinations to open this."

"Huh?" She stared at him. "I don't suppose you happen to…"

"…Know any of them?" He shook his head. "Not a one. Doesn't matter though." He pulled her back a few steps, and sent three shots into the centre of the lock. "There. That ought to do it." He pushed the door and it slid open. "See? What did I tell you?"

"Very good." She grabbed his hand and pulled him through the door before he could begin to analyse his marksmanship again. "Where now?"

"South. We have a rendezvous in two days. Martin Farrell." Oliver made a face. "Still, at least he'll be flying the helicopter, so he won't be bringing along any strawberry yoghurt sandwiches."

An image of a large man eating just that delicacy came into Sydney's mind from nowhere, and she winced at the sight. She could even smell his woodbines. Oliver saw the look on her face.

"I see you've met Martin? He used to be our liaison with the Yanks. Sorry. The Americans."

"No need to apologise. We've got plenty of names for you lot too." Sydney glanced around, trying to ignore the fact that they were still barely beyond the lobby of the building. "South is… this way." She began to walk, and Oliver caught her up, keeping pace with her as she took up a speedy jog.

They ran for what seemed like hours, and Sydney watched the movement of the sun to gauge the time, and to make sure that they were still heading in the right direction. Oliver did not speak, or question her actions. She got the impression that Alex had been the senior agent in this mission. That should have scared her, but as things were, she was certain that there was enough of Alex in her to make sure that she pulled it off. It scared her, though, that she had been hurt back at the holding centre. It also scared her that she could not find the key. There was nothing to touch here except for the occasional tree, and she did her best to touch them all, waiting for the feeling that would tell her she was on her way back to the real world. It never came. Instead she ran on, watching the onset of dusk, and hoping that the key would be here somewhere.

They stopped running when it became too dark to see the ground properly. Sydney collapsed in a heap, silently bemoaning the fact that she did not seem as capable as her instincts were telling her she was. Oliver sat down beside her, looking none the worse for wear.

"Can we get away with lighting a fire?" she asked. He shook his head.

"No way. They'd see it."

"They're after us anyway."

"True." He leaned back. "So this could be our last night on Earth."

She grinned. "It could be. But cheap lines like that still don't work, even if they're the last words I get to hear."

He smiled at that, and folded his hands behind his head, watching the stars. "We make a good team."

"So far it looks like it."

"My people want another liaison officer for the States," he told her. "If I went for the job, we could end up as partners."

"It's a possibility." She glanced at him. "Oliver… Don't take this the wrong way, but what's today's date?"

"I'm not sure," he admitted, a slight frown crossing his face. "It was the sixteenth when they grabbed me in the capital, I know that much. I was in the prison there for three days. Say… one day's travel here. Another four days… It's probably about the twenty-fourth, twenty-fifth. Something around there."

"Twenty-fifth of what?"

He laughed. "You been in that place that long? It's July. Otherwise you'd probably be freezing to death right now." He grinned. "And it's 1985, just in case you were wondering."

Sydney didn't answer him. As far as she recalled, Alex had wandered out of Oliver's life sometime around 1989, which meant that they could have been working together for a good four years. It was no wonder he had missed her so much. She was not surprised that this memory was one that had come so readily to the forefront of his brain. Alex had been such an important part of his life that it was little wonder his memories of her were strong enough to be taking control of her now. Somewhere back in reality, he was probably willing all of this to be real, and in the process holding Sydney inside VR. She found herself wondering what she had been doing in 1985. Playing with computers probably. An image of an acquaintance struggling with a ZX81 sprang to mind, but surely that had been earlier than 1985? That had been the year of the Commodore 64, and that TV show, Whiz Kids. She jumped back to the present - or was it the past - when Oliver asked her something.

"Pardon?" she asked.

"I said, how did you get into this line of work?"

"Oh… the usual." Her link to that part of Alex's mind seemed to be missing. "Army stuff, intelligence. You know."

"Afghanistan?" he asked her. She shook her head.

"No, not really." She hoped it was true, and hoped that it didn't matter here anyway. "How about you?"

"Oh, usual. Army stuff, intelligence. MI5, MI6, whatever."

"Been anywhere exciting?"

"Here and there." He yawned and stretched. "Excuse me."

"You want me to take the first watch?" Alex was back.

"Yeah, okay. If you're sure you don't mind."

She shook her head. "I wasn't the one getting knocked about by Mutt and Jeff back there. You need the rest."

"I won't argue with such beautiful logic." He grinned as she rolled her eyes. "Goodnight Alex."

"Goodnight Oliver." She watched him check his gun, and retain his hold on it, even when the rest of his body seemed to have relaxed. His steady breathing soon told her that he was asleep, but even so she knew that he would be alert in an instant. She remembered what she had heard him tell Abernathy, about paranoia and sleeping with guns. Such things were obviously not the sole prerogative of Committee men.

They took it in turns to sleep through the night, and set off again when it began to get light. There was no apparent sign of pursuit, but that did not mean that there was nobody after them. Sydney was beginning to feel a little tired of this game. She was scared of what might happen, stiff from sleeping on the ground, and tense from the constant state of alert. Alex might not need to rest, but Sydney did. That made life a little awkward when they were sharing a body.

"Where to now?" Feeling decidedly like a telephone technician again, and not at all like a secret agent, Sydney scanned the skies. It looked to her as though it were going to rain, and that was all that she needed to make the day really perfect.

"We make for the forest." Oliver pointed. "We can wait there until our rendezvous. After that… We'll just have to wait and see."

"You think that they're watching us; that they'll make their move when the helicopter comes."

He shrugged. "Well I know it's what I'd do, if it was me. They must realise somebody will be coming to pick us up."

"Great." She sighed, wondering why she hadn't taken Duncan's advice, when he had told her not to go into VR before he returned.

"Don't tell me you're not enjoying all this?" Oliver grinned, and began to walk towards the forest. He was perfectly insufferable when he was being cheerful, decided Sydney, and was almost glad that he had always seemed so downright miserable during most of her association with him. It almost made her wonder why Alex had ever got involved with him.

"Rather you than me," she mumbled to the universe at large.


"Nothing." She scowled at his back, and kicked at the ground with the toe of her shoe, pausing to pick up a few stones. She weighed each one in her hand, then threw them aside in disgust when none of them proved to be the key.

"Where did you leave your radio?" Oliver asked, turning back towards her as they reached the trees. "We might be able to call in and ask for an earlier pick up. Warn Farrell that we might have company."

"Radio?" Sydney thought hard, hoping that the information might be in her head somewhere. She could think of nothing that seemed at all useful, but when she opened her mouth to say so she heard her voice speaking of its own accord.

"I buried it in the forest. About half a mile in from the west side. This way." She began to stride ahead, leaving Oliver behind. She had no idea where she was going. She wondered if she was losing her mind. Was this what one too many VR trips did to you? Did you become just another part of the fantasy? Was she stuck here forever, living out some unreal scenario, or would it all come to an end when Oliver's body finally gave up, back in the real world. What would happen to her then? She shivered, and tried not to think of such things. Everything would be fine.

"You're a genius." She could sense that Oliver was grinning at her back, and she scowled. Why was he so damn chirpy? Couldn't he tell that she was facing possible insanity, and eternal entrapment in a world that didn't exist?! He was usually such a miserable bastard, at least in Sydney's experience, that it was hard to get used to this pre-Committee joker. She just wished he would stop with the puppy eyes whenever she looked in his direction. Her only consolation was that she knew it was really Alex who was the focus of all this attention. So why wasn't that making her feel any better?

They walked for more than an hour, before Sydney's instincts told her that she had reached the buried radio. She gestured to the ground beneath a tree of some sort; no doubt Alex would have known the type, and been able to give an accurate estimate of its age as well; and Oliver began to dig. Three feet down he came up trumps.

"Bingo!" He straightened up, jacket streaked with mud, and held aloft the radio, cables dangling in an odd caricature of an electrical octopus. He set it down. "You want to do the honours?"

"Shouldn't you? Farrell's your man."

"True. But it is a joint operation. And it's your radio."

"You just don't want to talk to him. It's not like you can smell his cigarettes over the radio."

"I wouldn't be so sure." Oliver began to sort the radio out, putting it back together again with a practised hand. "You know, there's very little point in taking the thing apart if you're going to bury all the pieces in the same place."

"I didn't." She pulled a transistor out of her pocket and threw it at him. "That bit goes in the receiver. At least I think it does." Inwardly she breathed a sigh of relief. That memory had come to her in the nick of time. The radio would have been useless with a piece missing. "Wake up, Alex," she hissed under her breath, although she had no idea who she was talking to.

"Ah ha! Gotcha." Oliver turned a few dials. "We'll tell him to pick us up on the other side of the forest in, what, two hours?"

"Should give him time to fly over here." She turned away from him, intrigued by the sounds coming from within the trees. A few steps brought her to within an arm's length of a wall of thick undergrowth. She suppressed a gasp. Deep within the undergrowth she could make out the shape of a man, standing very still.

"Er Oliver…?" Walking quickly back towards her companion, Sydney tried to keep her voice steady. "Why don't you pick that radio up? We might as well go to the new pick up sight and make the call from there, don't you think?"

"Why? Here's just as good, and we can bury the radio again when we've finished." Oliver was busy trying to tune the machine in to the right frequency. "Blast. Put the damn machine in a bag next time you bury it. It's all clogged up."

"Oliver…" Sydney was unwilling to reveal that she had spotted their secret onlooker. "I really think…"

"Save your breath, my dear. He always was a little slow on the uptake." Sydney froze, and saw Oliver do likewise. He looked up, eyes like ice.

"Echler. I should have known you'd turn up, sooner or later."

"Yes. I usually do, don't I? Except that here there are no convenient alleyways to run down, or walls to jump over. You can't even hide behind a tree."

Oliver straightened up, moving away from the radio.

"So what was it you were wanting?" he asked. Sydney tried not to cringe as she sensed the arrival of numerous men, all moving out of their hiding places amongst the all but impenetrable undergrowth nearby. Her companion's cool facade made her feel even less at ease, and she hoped it didn't show too much.

"You see what I mean, my dear?" Echler turned to look at Sydney. "He's slow. I should have thought it was obvious what I want. Martin Farrell is coming to pick you up, sixteen miles north of here, tomorrow night at eleven. I already have the area crawling with my men, and here you are trying to change the plan. That's just damned unfriendly of you Oliver. I've killed men for less."

"Sorry." Oliver frowned. "What do you want with Martin?"

"Stupid question, Oliver. He is your main operative in this region. Now be a good boy and move away from that radio. I was hoping to get a little information out of you first, but I'll shoot you down now if I have to."

"How did you know where to find us?" Sydney asked. "And the rendezvous with Farrell. How did you know about that?"

Echler laughed. "I have my connections," he told her. He looked over at Oliver. "You know a man called 'Worrell-Thompson? A British agent from your firm?" By the look on Oliver's face it was clear that he did know the man. Echler caught the look.

"A good man," he said thoughtfully. "As double agents go. You were wondering how you were picked up so easily in the capital last week? That was Worrell-Thompson. He sent us straight to you. He told us everything."

Oliver looked black. "I'll kill him," he whispered under his breath, with more venom in his voice than Sydney would have imagined him capable of.

"Probably. Somebody certainly will, sooner or later." Echler shrugged and glanced over at Sydney again. "As for where you were, and what you were up to, my dear." He slipped his hand into his pocket and brought out a small black box. "A… bug, I believe is what you call it. Handy little gadget. Also works as a location device. You'll find the item in question hidden in the collar of your jacket, Oliver. Worrell-Thompson again, I'm afraid. Now." He glanced from one to the other of them. "One of you has a film, yes? Plans from inside the Research Centre back there. It's you I believe." He turned to Sydney.

"Yeah, right." She looked from him to Oliver, and reached her hand into her pocket. "What do you say, Oliver? No sense in pretending I haven't got it, is there?" She pulled out the small canister of film, and hoped that Sampson was as alert as he always claimed to be. Tossing the canister idly in one hand, she feigned resignation. "Here."

She took a step forward, as if to hand the film to Echler, and with a sudden lurch to one side she threw it at Oliver. "Run!" She shouted, pushing Echler aside with a strength she had not known she possessed. Oliver caught the canister in one, surprised hand, then turned and ran, moving with an unexpected turn of speed. From the ground, where she lay in an ungainly tangle with Echler, Sydney saw one of the enemy agents raising his gun, taking aim on the escaping spy.

"No!" Suddenly terrified, Sydney heaved herself to her feet. If Oliver was killed in VR she would not have a hope of saving him in the real world. She grabbed the big man by the waist, knocking his gun from his hands, and took a few steps after Oliver, suddenly determined to put all that she could between her friend and his enemies.

The gun shot, when it came, sounded far away and muffled, as though she were well out of range, and were hearing it from a distance. She felt a raging fire burn across her side, and looked down at the blood that was already soaking through her shirt. Damn. This inconvenienced things rather. Oliver had heard the shot, and turned, as if by some sixth sense.

"Alex!" Fear shot through his voice, and she saw something of that same look that had been in his face on that infernal railway platform, the night that Alex had been murdered.

"Run!" she told him, knowing that he wouldn't do as he was told. Instead he ran to her, checking the wound in her side. It was not immediately life threatening, even Sydney could tell that, but it would soon become so if it went untreated. In the meantime it was extremely painful.

"Give me the film," Echler said, appearing as if out of nowhere. "Give me the film and I'll see that she receives medical attention. I'll even escort her to hospital myself. I'm a man of my word, Oliver. You know that."

"Rubbish." Oliver stood up, his face dark. "All you care about is doing your job. You'd let your own mother bleed to death if it helped you win your next medal."

Echler's face did not show so much as a flicker of emotion. Instead he backhanded Oliver across the mouth, making him stagger backwards from the force of the blow.

"You should watch your tongue, Sampson," the agent told him, his accent becoming thicker and more pronounced with every syllable, "or I will cut it out."

"I don't think so." Oliver was smirking, despite the blood that trickled down his chin. "You're a dead man, Echler. You just don't know it yet."

"Is that so? In what way am I a dead man, Sampson? I have ten men, all armed. You have yourself, and a half-dead American. Not great odds."

"Maybe not." Oliver smiled insolently back at the older man. "Remember Prague? You had six men with you then."

"And you wound up with three broken ribs and a concussion," Echler shot back. "Not a good example."

"But I left six bodies behind me," Oliver told him, his eyes gleaming even more so than the usual VR-induced glow. He straightened up, hands behind his back. Sydney could see that he was holding something, but Echler did not seem aware of it. "You want to take a shot at me, Echler? The two of us. One on one." Echler smirked.

"One on one? You flatter yourself. I've won awards in the ring."

"Then you've got no reason to refuse. Throw down your gun."

Echler looked down at the automatic rifle he held in his left hand. He had ten men with him, all similarly armed. Even if he did put his own gun down, there was still enough fire power in the vicinity to reduce both of his enemies to their constituent parts in seconds. He smirked. It might even be fun, knocking the insufferable Oliver Sampson down to size. He nodded.

"Deal." Weighing his gun in his hand one final time, he threw it to the ground. Oliver grinned, and without flinching he shot Echler down, throwing himself out of the way to allow his partner space to move.

Startled out of her semi-conscious stupor, Sydney reacted again with the instincts born of Alex's experience. She reached out, and in the blink of an eye had scooped up Echler's fallen rifle. She turned, and one-handed she fired the rifle in a broad sweep. Echler's men died instantly, collapsing on top of each other in the wake of the gun's powerful destructive force.

There was silence. Oliver began to laugh, then stood up, going over to check that everybody was dead. Sydney tried not to let him see her shaking. She was terrified by what she had just done, even though she knew that none of it was real. She couldn't believe that she had reached so naturally for the gun. None of it meant anything, she told herself. It had been Alex who had really killed those men, and it had all happened long ago, in 1985. Long before she had even heard of Oliver Sampson.

"Nice work, Alex." He came back over to her, and knelt beside her. "I'd better get on that radio. I'll get Farrell to come in as close as possible to where we are now. Think you can make it out of the trees?"

"Yes." Her voice was faint, and she felt terrible. "How long do you think he'll be?"

"Two hours, maybe. If I tell him it's an emergency he'll get here as fast as he can. I'll tell him to bring a medic with him."

"No." Something surfaced in Sydney's brain. "The mission chopper can only seat three. If a medic comes along as well…"

"I'll have to stay here." He shrugged. "It's no big deal, Alex. I've been here before. It needn't be for very long." He frowned at her protests. "Look, you need medical attention, quickly. Without it you could die, and I'm not about to let that happen."

"Not on the first date," Sydney couldn't resist adding. He grinned, and nodded.

"Exactly. It just wouldn't be right. And there just isn't time to get hold of a bigger helicopter." He began to fiddle with the radio. "Hang in there Alex. I'll try and speed things along." She heard him speaking into the transmitter, although it was hard to make out his exact words. Strength was beginning to leave her, and it was taking her consciousness with it. That terrified her, and she struggled to stay awake. This sort of thing just wasn't supposed to happen in VR. She had to find the key. It had to be around here somewhere. Oliver finished on the radio and came to her side.

"It's all sorted," he said. "Farrell will be here in a little over an hour. He's doing his best."

"I don't like leaving you here," She told him. He stared at her, his eyes surprisingly intense.

"Well I'm sorry, but I'm not taking any risks with your life." He frowned. "Alex… we've only just met. Do you think I'm going to take a chance on losing you now? I could never let anything happen to you."

She smiled, wondering how Alex had answered that one originally. Probably something suitably secret agenty, and sarcastic. Right now she was too tired to think of much.

"You're going to have to stick close, then," she told him. "In this job…"

"Yeah. I guess I'm going to have to go for that job as liaison officer. That way we can work together all the time."

"And I can keep an eye on you," she put in quickly.

"Yeah." He straightened up. "Just do me a favour, Alex, okay? Next time, if one of us really has to get shot, let me be the one?"

"Why?" Sydney was suddenly herself again, and not even remotely Alexy. She felt belligerent. "Because you're a man?"

"No." He sounded amused at that, and shook his head, opening up his jacket to show her something. "Because I'm the one who's wearing the bullet-proof vest."


The helicopter arrived as promised, and Sydney felt a lurching sensation as she prepared to be parted from Oliver. She tried to persuade him to go with her, but he simply shook his head and moved away. The helicopter began to take off, and she watched him down on the ground as he stepped back. The canister of film was in her hand, and she clenched her fist tightly around it. He had handed it to her as he left. He waved briefly, and headed off into the forest at a jog. Sydney knew that he was going to face the rest of Echler's men; the ambush that had been prepared for Farrell's arrival at the original planned pick up site. That scared her. It was hard to think of Oliver as being somebody who routinely risked his own life, and was so willing to kill others with hardly a thought. As Alex she had done the same thing, and that scared her further. She wondered if she could ever do it for real, back in her own world.

Farrell glanced back from the pilot's seat and saw where she was looking.

"Don't worry about him," he said jauntily. "He can look after himself. His father is family."

That gave Sydney a jolt, for the British agent could only have meant one thing. So Alex had been a member of the Committee as far back as 1985. She wondered if Oliver knew. She knew sufficient herself to realise that his memories had enough of a life of their own for this little scene to be something that he was completely unaware of.

"Is he?" she heard herself asking.

"Oliver? No, not that I'm aware." Farrell glanced down at the small figure, just visible running through the trees. "But it's only a matter of time. They're working on him; he'll join. The kids always do in the end, where one of the parents was involved." Sydney tried not to flinch, and hoped that he was wrong. Her own involvement with the Committee was minimal, and she was hoping to cut even those small ties. She would rather pretend that she had no idea her father had ever been a member of the damned organisation.

She blinked up at the roof of the chopper, and listened to the whirring blades and the noisy engine. Some secretive pick up vehicle this was. Still, at least she was on her way to medical assistance. The last thing she wanted was to die here in VR, with no sure knowledge of what would happen to her body, back in the motel room. She frowned against the pain in her side. "Damn you, Oliver," she muttered to herself. "You better bloody well wake up." At least with all of the pain and emotion that had been present in this particular segment of his memory, there was a good chance that something would have been triggered in his mind. If this didn't wake him up, nothing would.

"Are you okay?" She heard a soft voice above her, and looked up into the bottomless black eyes of the medic. He was smiling down at her, and looked more and more like an angel to her tired mind. She smiled up at him. Great. The best looking guy she had seen in years, and he was a creation out of VR. Or possibly a creation by Oliver's mind, which didn't improve the situation any.

"Here," he was saying. "Take some of this. It'll ease the pain, help you to sleep." He was holding out a breathing mask. She tried to tell him that she didn't want to sleep; that if she was unconscious she might miss finding the key; but she didn't have the strength to resist. She smiled up at him stupidly, and he lowered the mask over her face. It touched her skin and the helicopter blinked out of existence.


With a gasp of air like that of a desperate, drowning man, Sydney tore off the VR headset and gloves, shaking uncontrollably. Her breathing was ragged, and her vision was a blur. She fumbled for the clock, and blinked at it, uncomprehending for several minutes. Not even so much as thirty seconds had passed since she had entered that last scenario.

She stood up, and tried to get her breathing and heart rate back to normal. She was still shaking. That last scene had been so real, so desperate, that she found it hard to accept. She glanced towards Oliver, suddenly remembering him. Surely after all that, there had to be a change.

He was lying on his back, as before, but his eyes were open and he was blinking at the ceiling. She almost sobbed with relief, and ran over to the bed.

"Oliver?" she called softly. He turned his head to look at her, and seemed surprised.

"Sydney? What are you doing in my apartment?" He frowned. "Come to that, what's this motel room doing in my apartment?"

She laughed at the sheer absurdity of that comment. "Don't you remember anything, Oliver? You were hit by a car."

"A car?" He seemed surprised. "Oh yes. I do seem to recall…" He suddenly jerked back to a state of full alert, and sat up, reaching for his gun in its place beneath the pillow. It wasn't there.

"Oliver, it's okay. Your gun is on a chair across the room. You don't need it here."

He frowned. "Where are the others?"

"Duncan took them to another motel. We figured we ought to split up, since we weren't sure how long you'd be out of action for. Actually Duncan should be back soon. He went to see if he could find anything in the shops that might help you."

"Why? I've only got a headache."

"A headache?" She stared at him, amazed. "Oliver, you've been in a coma for three days! We didn't know what to do. Duncan said we couldn't take you to hospital, we didn't know who to trust, or who we could turn to…"

"Quite right." Oliver frowned. "Three days? Are you sure?"

"Perfectly. It's been a nightmare. I was trying everything to get through to you." He stared at her at that, and his eyes travelled first to the computer equipment on the nearby desk, and then to the phone receiver lying on the bed beside him.

"Well you needn't try telling me that I've been making regular calls while I've been lying here." He picked up the handset. "Tell me it's not what it looks like, Sydney."

"I'm sorry Oliver." It all came out in a rush. "I know you hate VR, but I didn't know what else to try, and Duncan agreed, and…"

"Well if Duncan agreed it's all alright then." He scowled. "I can't believe that you'd take advantage of--"

"I didn't take advantage of you. You were dying. I didn't know what else to do. I'm sorry. I just thought that perhaps I could… I don't know. Trigger your brain or something. I set things up so that I could take you into a scenario created from your own memory."

"My… my memory?" He looked stunned. "Are you insane? Quite apart from the fact that that is not the most sensible place to go into… What did you see?"

"I…" She wondered what to tell him. "There was a prison, that's all. Some kind of prison anyway. In Europe I think. Eastern Europe maybe? That's where you people did all your spy stuff isn't it?"

He relaxed slightly. "A prison? Could be anywhere, anytime." He looked somehow relieved, and Sydney wondered how he would react if he ever found out about the rest. "Just promise me that you'll never do it again." He stood up, swaying slightly, and retrieved his gun, then began to draw the curtains. "You really do have no idea of security, Sydney. Now I'm going to take a shower."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" she protested, but he headed straight for the bathroom, ignoring her protests.

"I have been unconscious before, Sydney… It's not really anything to write home about." The door closed behind him, and she heard him drawing curtains in the bathroom as well. She scowled at the door.

"Oh, go and collapse from a brain haemorrhage then. See if I care." She raised her voice and called through to him. "I'm going to fix us something to drink. Are you hungry?"

There was a silence, then the door opened. "Thankyou, Sydney. That would be nice."

"We haven't got much," she told him. "Some milk, I think, and some coffee. Should have some bread left over."

"Milk would be great, thankyou." He was doing his best to be polite, and sounded almost apologetic for his earlier outburst.

"You want some cookies with that?" she asked. He turned back to look at her, and she waited for the sarcastic rejoinder. Instead he simply smiled, and gave a brief nod.

"Sure. Why not." The door closed again, and soon the water began to run.

Sydney wandered into the kitchen and made herself some coffee. She was still a little shaky, and the sight of the machine gunned agents was still very clear in her mind. She lifted her shirt up a little, to check her side. There was no mark there of course. She breathed a sigh of relief, and set about pouring some milk for Oliver, and finding him some cookies. The idea of drowning her sorrows in some chocolate chips appealed to her, and she got some out for herself as well. She was just sitting down as Oliver came in. She handed him his milk, and he jumped up into one of the working surfaces to drink it, swinging his legs. For a second he reminded her of Duncan, then she scotched that idea. Definitely not.

He watched her, staring at her back for some time as he sat there, drinking his milk. Finally he spoke up.

"I'm sorry. About what I said earlier."

"That's okay. I know how you hate VR."

"It wasn't just that." He sighed. "Look, Sydney… What you did was very dangerous." She remembered the most recent excursion, and didn't deny that Oliver's memories were not the safest things to dabble in.

"You see…" He seemed unsure how to continue, and she turned to face him, intrigued. "Going into my memories in VR is like putting me in control there; letting me run the show. You can't appreciate how dangerous that could be. It's like playing with fire. Maybe this time you got lucky. Just don't take that risk again, even if you do think my life is in danger. I'm supposed to look after you, not the other way around."

"I don't see what's so dangerous about it. I go into VR as the controller all the time."

"Yes, but you're not me." He sighed. "You'll know, of course, that about ten per cent of the population are incompatible with VR?" She nodded. "Well another ten percent are extremely compatible with it. Some of them maybe too compatible."

"And you're one of them?"

He nodded. "In around 1990, the Committee started using VR to train their members. VR-2 they called it. Direct brain access. I always hated it; hated the computer being in control, and not me. Anyway, one day they decided to take things a step further. They sent five of us into a scenario that we controlled ourselves. At least that was the idea." He paused. "There was a malfunction; feedback from somewhere. Two of the team were killed instantly. Some kind of haemorrhage. Another one… His brain was burnt out. He became like a child. Didn't know who he was; who any of us were. The fourth member of the group had been responsible for the computer programming, and he thought he was responsible. So he committed suicide."

"But you think you were responsible?" Sydney asked.

"I know I was. I ran a diagnostic. The feedback had come from my brain. That was what caused the system to malfunction." He shook his head sadly. "You see? Messing around in VR with me in the driving seat is not a good idea."

"I understand." She wondered if that was why things had gone so haywire in that last scenario, but didn't like to say anything.

"Good." He jumped down from the counter and came to stand beside her. "I didn't mean to shout earlier. I was worried about you. I - well. I would hate it if something bad happened to you, that's all."

She smiled. Oliver Sampson showing affection, concern even, for somebody other than a shadow from his own past? This was something new. He reached out and took her hand, and she blinked in surprise. This was definitely something new. And probably never to be repeated, if she knew Oliver Sampson. He pulled her to her feet, and looked deep into her eyes, as if seeing something there that he had not seen before. He touched her face with a surprising tenderness, and smiled gently. She waited, expectantly, as he moved even closer - and then the doorbell rang, shattering the sudden silence with a noise like a brass band invasion. They both jumped. Sydney smiled at her companion, then turned away and went to let Duncan in. She already knew that the moment was gone. The cold mask had come back over Oliver's face. The world was back to normal.