Date: 2002
Size: 3600 words, 198K
Universes: The Sentinel/The Matrix
Disclaimer: Not mine. Just temporarily templating them from Pet Fly
and the Warchowski Brothers
Spoilers: SenToo
(and The Matrix)
(and spoilers for They Live, too)
Rating: PG
Category: Crossover, AU
Note: You don't need to have seen The Matrix to follow this,
though it does contain spoilers for the movie.
Fanzine: Merged Worlds <>
Summary: What have Jim's nightmares, Blair's nightmares, Alex
Barnes, two creepy Feds, a terrorist gang led by a man
called Morpheus, Naomi Sandburg, Blair's childhood bedtime
stories, the legends of the Kombai Tree People, and a lady
who bakes excellent cookies got in common? Just this: that
nothing is as it seems, and Everything You Know Is Wrong.

Notes and thanks are at the end of part 13.

Verity (part 1)

by Kathryn A


He was having the dream again.

His eyes opened. It was blurry, as if he were underwater, and dark. Not completely dark, there were lights flickering in the distance, like a lightning storm at sea. Light enough for him to see by. There was something covering his mouth, like a scuba mask. He was naked, but not cold. Floating, suspended in a tank or pod of clear liquid that wasn't water. His arms, his chest, his legs, where he could see them, were pierced at regular intervals with cables, sockets erupting from his flesh like stalks of some parasitic plant, born of metal, not biology.

There was a flash, bright, and a crackling sound, like an electric discharge. But no pain. He realized the flashes were flickering, repeating, out there, outside of his... tank? pod? It was not boxy, not square as you would expect, but curved, like some techno-nightmare growth plucked from the dreams of H.R. Geiger; black below, transparent above, save for the struts and spars of its frame. There was nothing to see but darkness, and in the flashes, glimpses of other pods, above and to either side.

The loudest noise was the crackling of the lightning, but there were other noises: the gurgling of liquid circulating, the throb of pumps, the hum of machinery, the thump of other heartbeats, slow from sleep. His own heart, beating, rapid with fear.

At the same time, he knew he was asleep in bed. Wake up, he told himself. Nothing changed. If anything, his bed seemed farther away, the dream more real.

He wasn't sure what frightened him more: the incomprehensible sameness of it all, the darkness, the strangeness, or his feeling weak and helpless as a baby, trapped, with nowhere to go. The first time he'd had the dream, he hadn't been able to move at all. Every time he came back to this darkness, he tried a little harder, fought against it with more success. But it still scared the hell out of him.

A recurring dream was supposed to tell you something. But if this was a message, it was written in Greek. He should tell Sandburg. But he never remembered.

He tried again to wake up.


He was having the dream again.

It was one of his earliest nightmares; the dream of the Man Without A Face. He didn't have a face, so he would steal the faces of other people. If you drew attention to yourself, he would come after you. But if you conformed too much, that made it easier for him to steal your face. It was all mixed up with a story that Naomi used to tell him when he was a kid, a fairy tale, a legend, about the One, and the Two, and the battle for men's souls.

But right now he was trapped in the dream.

He was in the bullpen at Major Crimes, and two of the Men had come in. They were wearing suits, like Feds. They always wore the mask of authority -- suits, uniforms, robes. And they were unbelievably precise.

They had come in, in to the bullpen, but they didn't see him. He hid under Jim's desk. Jim wasn't there. He peeked out. They were talking to Simon. Simon only saw the suits, he didn't see that the men had no faces. If he was really, really quiet, then maybe they wouldn't notice.

"Anyone seen Ellison?" Simon bellowed out.

His heart thundered. The Men hadn't come for him -- this time. They were after Jim! Because he was a Sentinel. Because he was different. He had to distract them somehow, keep them away from Jim.

He stood up.

"Where is Ellison?"

He was standing against the wall, and the man with the borrowed face was glaring at him.

"We know you know where he is. If you just tell us, everything will be fine."

Simon was smiling and nodding like a brainwashed puppet.

"Can't you see what they are?" he cried. He reached out to the Man and ripped off the faceless mask. There was nothing behind it. He was hollow. Darkness and lightning, falling motes of dust, the smell of oil and hot metal.

"You shouldn't have done that," the Man said. The Man grabbed him by the throat with the smooth speed of a piston pumping and pinned him against the wall like a metal clamp. The gloved hand came up, and peeled off Blair's face. The skin dangled like a rubber mask. The man put it up to the space where his face had been, and smoothed it into place.

His own face stared back at him.

"Do I make a good you?" said the Man, in David Lash's voice.

Blair screamed silently.


Jim snapped awake, disoriented. What? He felt as if he'd fallen a long way -- like Alice through the rabbit hole, with numbers and letters falling around him instead of playing cards -- as if he should have landed in his bed with a thump. Thank God he was out of that nightmare. But what had woken him?

He heard it again. A stifled whimper, rapid breathing, from the room below. He sharpened his focus, and heard Blair's heart pounding as if he'd just run a marathon. In the middle of the night? Was there an intruder in the loft? He listened. No, no one but him and Blair.

Should he go down and check on Blair? He sounded scared shitless. Or would that only serve to embarrass him? Well, it wouldn't hurt to go and look, would it? Jim crept down the stairs in the dark, eyes dilating to take in the available light. He stepped up to Blair's door and hesitated.

"No!" Blair's voice, frightened.

That was invitation enough. He opened the door and looked around cautiously. Nothing seemed amiss. Blair was -- Blair was asleep. Looked like he wasn't the only one suffering from nightmares. He sat on the edge of the bed and shook Blair awake.

"No!" Blair scrambled away from him, his heart an alarming thump-a-thump in the darkness.

"Blair, it's me, Jim!" He turned on the light, cursing his forgetfulness. Blair couldn't see him in the dark.

"Jim?" Blair blinked back at him in the sudden brightness. "Jim?" He scuttled forward and grabbed Jim's arm as if to prove to himself that Jim was solid and real. "It's really you."

"Why wouldn't it be?" Jim said. "It was just a nightmare, Chief, go back to sleep."

The fear returned to the back of Blair's eyes. "It was -- the men. They were looking for you."

Jim realized that Blair was still only half-awake. "It's okay, Chief," he reassured him, patting Blair's arm. "I'm okay. Go back to sleep."

Blair settled back under the covers. "Sorry I woke you, Jim."

"Glad you did," Jim admitted. "I had a nightmare of my own."

Blair's eyes sparked. "Really? Tell me! It could be import --"

"In the morning, Chief. We'll talk in the morning."

Blair sighed and shut his eyes. "Okay Jim." He popped one eye open. "Jim would you mind if -- Could you stay until I'm --"

"I'll stay," Jim reassured him, "until you're asleep."

"Thanks, Jim."

Jim sat by the bed until he heard his partner's breathing even out into the slow steadiness of sleep.


Blair stared at Jim over his toast. "Enough procrastinating, Jim," he said. "You promised to talk in the morning. It's morning, you're washed, dressed and fed. Talk to me."

Jim sighed. He'd hoped that Blair would have forgotten. "It was just a nightm --"

"There is no 'just' about it, Jim," Blair interrupted. "You're a sentinel. Your dreams mean something."


"You know what happened when you didn't pay attention last time, when you didn't talk to me." The name lay unspoken between them. Alex Barnes.

"When we didn't talk to each other," Jim said, and sighed. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."

Blair hesitated, then nodded. "Okay." He raised his eyebrows. "So what kind of a nightmare did I wake you from?"

"A weird one," Jim answered. "I wake up, somewhere dark..." Jim proceeded to describe his dream in all its strangeness. "And every time it's the same."

"Every time?" Blair repeated. "You mean you've had this dream before? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I never remembered," Jim said.

"A recurring dream of being trapped in a glass coffin," Blair mused. "Trapped and exposed..." He looked at Jim. "Is your subconscious telling you you're in a rut, you need to get a different job?"

"I don't think so, Sandburg," Jim growled.

Blair frowned. "It sounds vaguely familiar. Like I've seen it somewhere before."

"In a dream interpretation manual?"

Blair shook his head. "No, I don't think so." He tapped his finger against his chin. "Can I get back to you on that, Jim?"

"Sure, Sandburg." Jim collected their plates, dumped them in the sink, and returned to the table. "Now it's your turn. What kind of nightmare did I wake you from?"

Blair blushed. "It's stupid, really."

Jim shook his head. "Not something that scares you that badly. You dreamt that someone was after me?"

"I dreamt that the Men Without Faces had come for you," Blair said. "Because you were a sentinel. Special, not ordinary. I was in the bullpen and you weren't there, and they came in, looking for you, and Simon thought they were Feds and didn't do anything, and they wanted me to tell them where you were, and I wouldn't, and he pushed me against the wall and he took my face and turned into Lash," Blair said in one rush of breath.

"Oh, Chief."

Blair ran a hand through his hair. "I mean, I used to dream about them when I was a kid. Why would I be doing it now?"

"Well, I'd say drowning would make you remember near-drowning, wouldn't you?" Alex Barnes had drowned Blair in the fountain too recently to forget, and David Lash had kidnapped Blair with the aim of drowning him in a duckpond, after fixating on Blair and pretending to be him. It didn't seem unlikely that the two would be connected in Blair's nightmares.

Blair shook his head. "I'm not sure. I think... from where I was, the Lash thing was just the icing on the cake. It was the Men Without Faces I was really scared of, scared that they would get you."

"The Men Without Faces?"

"A story Naomi used to tell me as a kid. That nothing we can see is real, that the world is a prison run by the Men Without Faces. They steal people's faces, and they always wear suits, kind of like the Grey Men in Michael Ende's "Momo." I wonder if Ende knew the same stories? Parasitic men in suits...."

"Well, that's a different twist on the usual the-world-is-an-illusion cr -- stuff," Jim said.

"Crap, you were going to say crap," Blair pounced. "Where's your religious tolerance?"

"I tolerate the Buddhist stuff, Chief. I just think it doesn't make sense," Jim returned, unperturbed. "I mean, if we're all god and all we have to do is remember that, then why does god keep on forgetting?"

"Maybe god likes people," Blair suggested. "Naomi used to say that people were the secret treasure of the world."

"Why 'secret,' Chief?"

Blair smiled. "Because they don't know how precious they are."

Jim chuckled. "That's Naomi all over."


Verity (part 2)

"Ellison! Sandburg! My office."

The familiar bellow of Captain Simon Banks came as an almost welcome relief from the flickering of Jim's computer screen as he tried to type up his report. He'd never mentioned it to Sandburg, but the main reason why he was so happy for Sandburg to help with his "paperwork" wasn't because he couldn't write reports, but because, ever since his senses came online, the flickering of the computer screens had become increasingly bothersome. His eyes reacted faster than normal humans, and of late it was almost as if he could see the progress of the scanning beam as it scrawled its dots across the surface of the monitor. Sandburg would go nuts if he told him that. It was the same with TVs, but the interest in what he was watching made it a lot easier to ignore. Computers just gave him a headache.

He exchanged glances with Sandburg, wondering what it was that Simon wanted.

Sandburg shrugged, as if to say don't ask me, man.

They went to Simon's office. Jim shut the door when Simon gestured for him to do so.

Simon pinched the bridge of his nose, as if to ward off an incipient headache. "Sit down."


Simon sighed. "I just got a call. Alex Barnes has escaped."

"What?!" they both exclaimed.

"How?" Blair asked. "Conover's pretty secure -- I ought to know."

Simon shook his head. "That's what I would have said too, but she's gone. The people at Conover are baffled. They claim there's no way she could have gotten past their security. There's no record on their cameras. It's as if she just vanished."

"But she's a sentinel, " Blair began.

"That's why I want you on the case. Both of you. You're the best chance of figuring out what the hell happened, whether it's some sentinel thing or something else screwy is going on."

"Something else screwy? What kind of thing?" Blair asked.

"How the hell should I know?" Simon said. "Don't theorise before you have the facts. So I suggest you go down there and get some facts."

"We're on it, sir," Jim said, and stepped toward the door.

Simon held up his hand to forestall him for a moment. "Jim, the Feds are going to want in on this. I can stall them for a couple of days, but there is no way they won't be interested. Heck, considering that she tried to sell that nerve gas in Mexico, we could have more than just the FBI breathing down our necks. Just make the best of the time you have."

"Right." Jim nodded and steered Blair out of the office.


Blair was uncharacteristically silent on the drive over to Conover. The longer the drive went on, the deeper his frown became. Jim guessed what was troubling him. "I won't let her get you, Chief."

Blair looked at him sharply. "Don't make promises you can't keep."

It was like a slap in the face. "I -- Blair -- I thought we'd -- How many times do I have to say I'm sorry?"

"Sorry doesn't mean shit if you turn around and do the same thing again," Blair said, then stopped as if he'd said too much.

"What? What the hell are you talking about, Sandburg?"

"You. Holding out on me." The hurt and betrayal in Blair's eyes stabbed Jim's heart, but the anger sparked his own.

Jim shook his head. "Where are you getting this crap, Sandburg? What on earth makes you think I'm holding out on you?"

"She escaped. You must have been sensing her. You didn't tell me. You promised you'd tell me."

Jim pulled over and stopped the car. He turned to face Blair. "I swear, I haven't been holding out on you. I haven't sensed anything. I haven't seen any spotted leopards. I haven't seen any visions. Just the dream I told you about this morning. That's all."

Blair stared at Jim, searching his face. Reading the truth there, he flushed in shame. "I'm sorry, Jim. I should have trusted you."

"Yes, you should."

"I'm sorry." Blair shook his head. "I was sure you would have noticed something."

Jim shook his head. Now that Sandburg pointed it out, it was strange. If Alex Barnes was out and free to wreak havoc, he was sure his internal alarms would be ringing double-time -- and he would recognise the feeling this time, that skin-crawling itch like ants walking on his nerve-endings. "Nothing," he said. Less than nothing. If anything, he felt oddly disconnected, as if he still hadn't woken up. Nothing that a good cup of coffee can't solve, he thought.

Thinking no more of it, Jim pulled back into the traffic.

"Which means," Blair mused aloud, "either she isn't in your territory..."

"Or she's dead," Jim said.

"Or maybe she isn't a sentinel anymore. You suppressed your powers more than once; it's not unlikely that the doctors would try to 'cure' her of them, thinking they're delusions. Maybe they succeeded."

"In which case, we have a sane, dangerous woman on the loose," Jim said.

"Who doesn't have your advantages," Blair pointed out.


Alan Parker, the head of security at Conover, was more interested in showing how impossible it was for Alex to have escaped, than in providing ideas as to how she might have done so.

"The rooms are code-locked, and the hallways are monitored constantly," he said, pointing to the bank of closed-circuit-TV monitors in the security office.

"I assume you have tapes of the time in question?" Jim asked.

Parker nodded.

"I'll want to look at them later," Jim said. "Right now we'll take a look at her room, if we may."

Parker detailed a guard to take them to her room. As they walked down the stark corridors, Blair remembered when he'd been here before, undercover, trying to catch a murderer. Running down the hall in fear for his life.

"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked.

Sentinel radar, musta heard my heart speed up, Blair thought, not sure whether to be pleased or annoyed. He shrugged. "Bad memories."

They stopped outside a particular door and the guard punched a code. The door unlocked.

"There's a different code for each door, right?" Jim asked.

"Right." The guard nodded. "This was left exactly the way it was found. I won't get in your way, I've got rounds to do. I'll be back in fifteen minutes, okay?"

"That's fine." Jim nodded, glad that there wouldn't be a witness to his own particular kind of detecting.

Jim tensed as he entered the room. "It's her room all right."

"How can you tell?" Blair asked, closing the door behind them, but not letting the lock engage.

"Scent," Jim answered shortly. "She's been here a long time; it's everywhere."

"Okay, let's see what else you can smell." Blair put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Filter out her scent. What else do you smell?"

Jim shut his eyes. His nostrils flared and he took a deep breath. "Disinfectant. Cafeteria food. Urine. Sweat." Blair could feel the muscles relax under his hand as Jim let himself go. His breaths became slower, deeper.

"That's it," Blair encouraged. "What else?"

Jim opened his eyes and stepped farther into the room, toward the unmade bed. Blair shadowed him. Jim shook his head, frowning. "There's something...."

Jim took another sniff and choked. He curled over himself, scrabbling at his nose and mouth, gagging.

"Jim!" Blair pounded Jim's back. "Breathe, man, breathe! Dial it back to zero. It can't hurt you. Breathe."

"Can't," Jim choked out. "Can't breathe."

Don't panic, Blair, you're all he's got. He tried to mask his fear with encouragement. "You're talking, you can breathe," he said. Blair squatted in front of Jim and grabbed his shoulders. "Look at me."

Jim looked.


Jim breathed.

Blair could feel his own heart pounding a mile a minute, and took a few deep breaths of his own. "You okay now?"

Jim nodded. They both stood.

"What happened?" Blair asked.

"I couldn't breathe."

"Yeah, I got that," Blair said dryly. "Something overpowered you? A smell?"

"No. It wasn't a stink. I felt like I was drowning."

"Drowning?" Blair echoed. Oookay, well, that's a first. Don't panic, Blair, we can deal, we can deal. "Drowning how?"

"My nose was full of -- My mouth.... " Jim shook his head, unable to piece the words together.

"Okay, we'll get back to that later. Think back, before it happened. What triggered it? What did you smell?"

Jim took a breath, reliving the memory. "Something electrical. Ozone. Something." He waved his hand above the bed. "I don't smell it now, but it was here."

"Where Alex was."


"Electrical equipment? Experiments? A taser?"

Jim shook his head. "I don't know; it was very faint."

"And then you felt like you were drowning. Think back," Blair said in a low voice, slowly. "You're here. You smell ozone." Jim closed his eyes, untangling the skeins of memory. Blair put his hands on Jim's arms. "You're right here with me, it can't hurt you. Just remember."

"I smell... something. Like lightning."

"What do you see?"


"What do you feel?"

"Something in my mouth, down my throat."

"What's down your throat?"

"A... a tube?"

"Where are you?"

"I'm here, and not here."

"Where are you?"

Jim snapped his eyes open. "I'm here." He shivered in reaction.

"It sounds like you had a vision," Blair said.

"But I didn't see anything," Jim protested.

"No, you felt something. Maybe you're still connected to her. Feeling what she feels."

"She was drowning?" Jim shook his head. "No, that's not it. It was like... deep sea diving, maybe. I don't know."

"A breathing tube? In a hospital?"

Jim shook his head. "I don't know. Just leave it, okay?"

Blair backed off. "Okay. Take a look around. Do you see anything out of place?"

Jim looked. "Hairs on the pillow. Blond. Bed's been slept in." He shook his head. He looked around the rest of the room. "Dust in the corners. Window locked, no tampering." He frowned. "Nothing." He went back to the bed. "Do you notice anything... odd about this?"

Blair stared at the bed. "The bed's not made, you can see it's been slept in, it's messy, not flat, the pillow isn't fluffed up, there's a dent where the head's been." Blair walked around the bed. "It's tucked in on both sides."

"That's it!" Jim said. "How do you get out of bed, Sandburg?"

"Um, come again?" Blair said. "I, er, I get out of bed."

"Do you lift the blankets up? Do you inch out of the bed so it doesn't get messed up? Or do you just pull up everything on one side and get out?"

Blair looked at the bed. "Okay, so she's a neat freak and she tucked the sheets back in."

Jim rolled his eyes. "If she were a neat freak, the bed would be neat. It isn't neat."

"Okay, so it's odd," Blair conceded. "What does it mean?"

"I don't know -- yet," Jim said. "But it's an anomaly, and cases are built on anomalies."


Verity (part 3)

Dots. That's all it was. Dots in rows on a screen, that didn't tell him anything, except what wasn't there. Jim and Blair were ensconced in a small office, looking at the security tapes from the previous day, particularly those from the corridor outside Alex's room, and from the grounds. Looking for clues. Looking for the point at which Alex escaped. And there was nothing. No one had opened her door, not from the inside or the outside. No black-clad figure had hovered furtively in the darkness outside, not that Jim could find, though he had pushed his vision to the limit. Over and over again. But he simply could not see what wasn't there.

Dots. Swarming, flickering dots.

"Jim? Jim, come back to me now, listen to my voice."

Blair's face fuzzed in front of him, a swirl of points of colour. He blinked and drew back. The room was flickering. His head pounded, and it seemed like the room was strobing in time with his heartbeat. "Damn," he said, shutting his eyes. "I zoned."


"Yeah," Jim admitted, keeping his eyes shut, not wanting to see the weird effects the zone-out had had on his eyesight.

"Here, let me." Cool hands were placed on his temples, and Blair rubbed the tension away. "Better?"

"Thanks." Jim cracked one eye open. Blair stood solidly in front of him. His vision was back to normal.

"What did you zone on?"

Jim shook his head, then winced as the remnant of the headache reminded him that it was merely placated, not banished. "I'm not sure. Just trying too hard, I think."

"Did you find anything?"

Jim shrugged. "A flash of light from her room, didn't seem like a lamp, didn't seem like a flashlight, not sure if it was even there -- it was so brief, and against the light from the corridor -- maybe I just imagined it. A glitch on the camera."

"Could it be connected with the ozone you smelled before?"

Jim shrugged, and pressed his hands against his eyes. "Maybe. I don't know. And I don't think these tapes are gonna tell us anything more."


Dr. Whittaker, Alex Barnes' psychiatrist, had his own theory about her disappearance. "She must have been abducted," he declared.

"By aliens?" Blair quipped.

"Of course not." Dr. Whittaker frowned. "But if you asked me if Alex Barnes was capable of planning and executing an escape from this institution, I would have to say no, absolutely not."

"Why not?" Jim asked.

"She was delusional, had lost contact with reality," the doctor said.

"What, seeing things, hearing things she shouldn't be able to hear?" Jim asked.

Blair turned startled eyes in his direction, but it was a question that needed to be asked. If Alex's heightened senses were dismissed as mere delusion, then Jim doubted very much the doctor's ability to judge whether Alex was really delusional or not, and it was something they needed to know, even at the slight risk of putting the spotlight on heightened senses in general, and Jim in particular.

Dr. Whittaker steepled his hands. "Shouldn't be able to?" he echoed. "It's interesting that you put it that way. You were the one who arrested her, weren't you?" He looked at Sandburg. "And you were the one she drowned. She was quite fixated on both of you."

Blair almost managed to hide his alarm, but not from his partner. And probably not from Dr. Whittaker either, trained observer that he was. Jim only hoped that Dr. Whittaker hadn't taken anything Alex said seriously, whatever it was that she had said about both of them. But since there was no point in denying their connection with Alex, Jim decided to use it. "I need to find her, Doctor. I need to know if she is going to go after Sandburg again."

"If she were capable of functioning at all, Mr. Sandburg wouldn't be the only person she would try to kill," Dr. Whittaker said.

"Why not?" Blair said, not quite able to hide a tremor in his voice.

"The nature of her delusion. She believed that the world was an illusion, that it was her mission to free everyone from the prison of existence, reveal the truth to them -- by killing them."

The hair on the back of Jim's neck stood up, as he remembered what Alex had said in the Temple of the Sentinels; Once I've cleansed the world and you've left your flesh behind, maybe then you'll understand what I've seen.

Dr. Whittaker saw the expression on Jim's face. "I see this doesn't come as a surprise to you."

"She already tried it once," Jim grated out. "With a canister of nerve gas." He shook his head. "But I didn't know why."

"You weren't to know," the doctor said, trying to be kind, but coming across as patronising. "Leave that to the professionals."

"You said, 'if she were capable of functioning at all,'" Blair said quickly, seeing Jim bristle at the doctor's words. "What did you mean by that?"

Dr Whittaker sighed. "Most of the time she was completely unresponsive, catatonic, and when she wasn't she was often manic, with violent responses to stimuli. On a good day, she might actually acknowledge my existence, and talk. But her periods of lucidity have been fewer and farther apart, despite all our treatment."

Jim bit back a sarcastic retort, imagining with shuddering vividness, what something like Prozac would do to his senses. He couldn't help feeling a surge of sympathy for Alex, and squashed it, reminding himself again that this was the woman who had killed Blair, albeit temporarily. You already messed up enough with that... woman, he thought, remembering his own protective reaction toward Alex in Mexico, and the connection between them.

"But when she was lucid -- Couldn't she have done something then?" Blair asked.

Dr Whittaker shook his head. He opened a drawer and hunted through it, finally taking out a tape and putting it in the recorder on his desk. "This was one of her good days."

He put the tape on fast forward, stopped, listened for a moment, put it on fast forward again, until he'd found the position he was searching for.

"I can't wait for the king of dreams. His rules make him slow. I have to show everyone the truth."

"What truth is that, Alex?"

Alex laughed, a brittle, harsh sound. "Do you want me to show you? Just give me a knife, and I'll show you. Would you like it in the heart, or across the jugular?"

"Neither. Nobody wants to be killed, Alex."

"It isn't real, so it won't really kill them."

"What isn't real?"

"Everything. Though sometimes I dream that I'm awake. It's dark. The flashes hurt my eyes. The black cords hold me down."

"You feel tied down?"

"No, no, they're growing from me like flowers," Alex said dreamily. "Growing in the womb, in the black, in the orange."

Jim was chilled to the core. The phrase walking over my grave had never felt more appropriate. She was talking about his dream. Or was it really his dream at all? Was he connecting with her again, picking up on Alex's madness?


"Shhhh. Listen. Listen to the people. I can hear them sleeping."

The tape fell silent at that point, though Jim could hear the breathing of Alex and the doctor, echoed at the moment by the real doctor here in the room now, and Blair, and himself. And, just noticed, underneath it all, the sound of humming, throbbing, interspersed with a crackling sound. Pumping. Thumping heartbeats. The sounds from his dream.

"I can't hear them, Alex."

She laughed. "Of course not. That's because you're still sleeping." She started humming.

Jim could still hear the noises, underneath. They weren't coming from the tape. They weren't coming from anywhere. But he could still hear them. He shook his head sharply, wondering at his auditory hallucination. Or was it just imagination?




The doctor stopped the tape, and the noise of the controls made Jim wince. "There's not much more there. She became completely unresponsive. But as you can see, even when she was lucid enough to talk, she didn't stay that way for long."

"Long enough to threaten to kill you," Blair pointed out.

"Words only," the doctor countered. "She couldn't actualise her wishes."

"That doesn't sound reassuring enough," Jim said, pulling himself together.

"I don't deny that Alex Barnes is a dangerous woman," Dr. Whittaker said. "But she's a danger to herself more than to others. She could not have escaped on her own."

"And you think someone from outside abducted her," Blair said. "Why would anyone want to do that?"

Dr. Whittaker looked at them. "I think you are more likely to know that than I. You tracked her down before. You'll just have to do it again."

"If it was someone from outside," Jim said pointedly.

"I don't like what you're implying," the doctor said. "Why would anyone here want to abduct Alex Barnes?"

"In your own words, doctor, I think you are more likely to know that than I," Jim answered. "She's a beautiful woman. Guards have been suborned here before."

"That was an isolated incident," the doctor protested.

"Perhaps not so isolated as you think." Jim stood up, and Blair followed suit. "Thank you, doctor, for your help." Jim handed the doctor his card. "If you think of anything else, call me."


"You don't really think someone here helped her escape, do you, Jim?" Blair asked on the way to the truck.

Jim shook his head. "Frankly, Chief, I don't know what to think." There was a flicker in the corner of his eye, like lightning seen from underwater. He looked again, but it was gone.

"What is it?" Blair asked sharply.

"What's what?" Jim returned.

"You saw something."

"No. It was nothing."

"You sure?"

"Just a trick of the light, Sandburg. Nothing." But suddenly the sunlight seemed thin, washed-out, as if everything were under a shadow, the shadow of a storm. But there wasn't a cloud in the sky. "Let's get out of here."


"Where is Ellison?" The Man Without A Face loomed over Blair. "We know you know where he is. If you cooperate, there won't be any trouble."

Blair darted a frightened glance at Simon, who couldn't see anything amiss.

"Can't you see what they are?" he cried out. He ripped the borrowed face off the Man, kicked him in the shins, and ran.

He'd only taken a few steps when the Man overtook him and slammed him to the floor. "You shouldn't have done that." The Man turned him onto his back, and the floor turned into a dentist's chair, with Blair chained into it. A black gloved hand came up to his head, and peeled off Blair's face like a rubber mask.

The Man covered his faceless hole with Blair's peeled face. "Do I make a good you?" he said, in David Lash's voice. "Now hairy-Blairy is going to have a bath."

It wasn't a dentist's chair. It was the hard, cold curve of a bath, splotched with red-brown rust stains. The chain rattled against the grubby white enamel of the bath as Blair writhed against it. The gag over his mouth tasted of bleach.

"Got to be just right," the Lash Man said, turning on the taps. Hot and cold water splashed against Blair's feet. The water became warm, but Blair was warm and cold, as he struggled, in and out of the water, trying to get purchase against nothing.

"Good boys got to be clean," the Man said. "Clean, clean, clean." The water rose to Blair's shoulders, and he churned, struggling. Water splashed everywhere, including over the Man. "Naughty boy! Hold still." The Man grabbed Blair's shoulders and pushed him down. Blair struggled, splashing, but the water covered his face anyway.

A bubble of air was trapped in his nose, as he held his breath.

And held it.

And held it.

And held it.

in the

Blair groaned at the piercing shrill of the alarm, and groped for the alarm clock by the side of the bed. Then he just lay there, breathing, counting his breaths and being glad to be alive. He waited for the expected bellow from the loft above his room, but there was silence.

Jim must be really wiped to sleep through my alarm. Though the way that Jim had stayed up last night watching reruns while Blair surfed the net researching, made Blair wonder if Jim wanted to get to sleep at all. Was he, like Blair, trying to avoid the nightmares? Not that that had worked. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, variation on a theme.

Blair groaned again and dragged himself out of bed. Half an hour later he was showered, shaved, dressed, and contemplating breakfast. Something indulgent, he thought, that we'll both like. I know! Pancakes! No buttermilk, he'd have to make do with ordinary milk, but it should still be delicious.

By the time Blair had beaten the eggs, flour and milk, and set the table, he was puzzled by Jim's non-appearance. Sleeping in was one thing, but all the noise Blair had been making would surely have woken a sleeping sentinel by now.

Blair decided to beard the lion in his den. After all, he had something to placate Jim with, should he try to bite Blair's head off. Blair went up the stairs to Jim's loft. Yes, there was a Jim-shaped lump in the bed. Dead to the world, sound as--

Jim's eyes were open.

Damn! He's zoned! Blair was by Jim's side in an instant. "C'mon Jim, come back to me here." He spoke soothingly, and touched Jim's face and shoulders, hoping that stimulating more than one sense would bring Jim out of it quicker. What on earth could he have zoned on, safe in bed? What was he concentrating on?

Suddenly Jim blinked, and grabbed Blair's arm with one hand. A moment later recognition blazed in his eyes. "Sandburg! Thank God! I thought I'd never wake up."

"Wake up? You were zoned, you weren't asleep."

Jim rubbed his eyes. "But it was the nightmare. I couldn't wake up."

Blair frowned. "Could you have zoned on something in your sleep? Maybe the nightmare is just the last thing you remember."

"God, Sandburg! Zoning while I'm asleep?" Jim burst out. "It's bad enough when I'm awake!"

"I don't think you can zone on a nightmare," Blair said.

Jim sat up, putting his head in his hands. Then he looked up at Blair. "Can't you? It's so real. Larger than life. Boring as hell. Dreary as New York. The scariest thing about it is not being able to wake up."

"Maybe it's only a nightmare because you're scared," Blair said. "If you didn't try so hard to run away from it, maybe it wouldn't be so bad."

"The amateur psychologist strikes again," Jim grumbled. "You gonna take some of your own advice, oh wise one?"

Blair winced. Nightmares. "Yeah, well if my nightmares were boring and dreary, I might," Blair returned. "You gonna get up, or am I going to eat all the pancakes without you?"

"Pancakes!" Jim grinned. "Now that's worth waking up for."


Verity (part 4)

Blair surveyed his office with a frown. "I know it's here somewhere," he muttered. "One of my expeditions... I remember writing it down. Somewhere tropical, like that narrows it down at all." He looked at the row of binders and notebooks on the shelf in front of him. Somewhere, somewhere in there was a reference to something like Jim's dream. He was sure of it. He had to find out what it meant. It was obviously important. And the way Jim's senses were playing up, it had gone from important to urgent.

Blair shut his eyes, trying to recall the circumstances where he'd heard or written down that piece of information. Sunlight, dappled leaf-shadows, humidity... gentle swaying....

"Kombai Tree people," he muttered. He looked at one section of the bookcase, and sighed. "Start with the first one, I guess."

Half an hour later, he found something, though it wasn't what he'd been looking for.

"Oh my God, they're the same!" he exclaimed softly. "Why on earth didn't I see this before? Jung would be dancing a jig if he knew."

The section that had caught his eye read:

The Laleo are faster and stronger than any human being. No wonder my klutz-o-rama convinced them I wasn't one. The Laleo are apparently incapable of clumsiness. They look like white men because they were created in the image of the evil sorcerer who made them as his servants. But they rebelled and killed the sorcerer, and took his power to themselves. They have no souls, and in this world they have no bodies, but take over the bodies of human beings.

"The Men Without Faces," Blair murmured. A chill went down his spine, and he shivered. It's just a fairy tale, Blair, no need to get spooked. But another voice countered, Oh yeah? Whatever happened to gotta-find-the-significant-meaning, huh? It means something.

Blair read farther.

Korao sacrificed my watch today. After much discussion, the elders deemed it to be a sorcerous instrument, and therefore likely to attract Laleo. "You do not need an instrument to tell you the time, young one. That is to turn your back on the Sun, who gives us life." They let me keep my ballpoint pens, though. "This thing is a tool of the hands, a tool of the eye, and of the mind. It is a knife for carving words. You do not become lazy when you use it." It's a good thing I didn't bring a radio. The surprising thing is that they didn't condemn me as a sorcerer for having the watch. More like an ignorant child that needs teaching. Well, I am here to learn.

And then Blair found what he was looking for, in the middle of an epic Hero's Journey folk-tale of the Kombai.

And Tema came to the land of the Laleo. It was a land of black clouds that hid the sun, an eternal storm that never blessed the ground with rain, just thunder and lightning. He hid from the Laleo, who strode about on their long legs like giant spiders. He found the place where the captives were kept, surrounded by noisome waters, and wreathed with lightning. But Tema was brave and foolish, and he swam the waters and braved the lightning, and climbed the tower, until he came to the first captive, a woman. He knew her face; her name was Kelai. She lay inside the magical bed, like a seed inside a gourd, with black cords around her, draining the life out of her. Tema tried to wake Kelai, but the sleep she was in was an enchanted sleep, and nothing he did could rouse her.

"Eureka!" Blair cried. "The land of the Laleo." And then he stopped, chilled with realization. But if the Laleo are the Men Without Faces, then Jim and I have been dreaming about exactly the same thing.

And then his eye fell on the next page.

Korao said an odd thing to me then. "It is good that you write down the words. Some day, years from now, you will need to know these things, because you have forgotten, and they will be there, waiting for you, to give you what you need, when the Laleo come near to you, or when you go to them."

"You mean when I die," I said, figuring he meant the afterlife. The land of the Laleo sometimes figured as a kind of Kombai Purgatory.

He stared right through me. "No. Though you will pass through death first."

"Holy shit!" Blair scrambled to his feet, staring at his journal as if it were a live snake. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he shivered as if it were winter. It's just a coincidence, Blair. Korao couldn't know you were going to end up face-first in a fountain. But the other niggling voice said, Yeah, right. Korao was the village wise man, you oughta know what kinda things they see. Are you being as thick as Jim, here? There are no coincidences. "There are no coincidences," he repeated in a shaky voice.


When Blair arrived in the bullpen, Jim's desk was empty.

"Where's Jim?" Blair asked the bullpen in general.

Brown jerked his head toward Simon's office. The blinds were closed. "The Feds arrived," Henri explained.

"Damn!" Blair slumped down at Jim's desk. "Not that we were getting anywhere."

At that moment, the door to Simon's office opened. A brown-haired man in a grey suit came out, turning his head back into the office to say "I trust you will keep us informed of any developments." His words were spaced out, and sharply defined, rolling like marbles off his tongue.

Blair had a sudden urge to pretend he had dropped something under the desk. He didn't want to have to explain himself to these Feds, he knew they would take one look at his long hair and -- And he was just jumping at shadows, spooked by nothing. He did it anyway, palming his pen in case he actually had to explain to someone why he was bending over in his seat, hiding behind Jim's desk.

Blair heard a chuckle above him. "Hiding from the Feds, Chief? I thought that was my trick. It's okay, they're gone."

Blair sat up, blushing. Jim stood in front of the desk.

"I don't blame you, though, these guys give me the creeps," Jim added, coming around and sitting next to Blair. "They think the Morpheus gang may be involved in this. Didn't give any reasons, just made a pronouncement from on high."

"The Morpheus gang?"

"Hi-tech criminals," Jim said. "If they're terrorists, nobody seems to know what their political agenda is. They just like killing people -- and cracking computers. A couple of months ago the Feds managed to capture Morpheus himself, and his followers did a full frontal assault on the facility he was in -- just walked in and started shooting, blew up the ground floor and escaped in a helicopter."

Blair's eyes widened. "What makes them think these guys have anything to do with Alex Barnes escaping?"


"You gotta be joking."

"She, quote, 'fits the profile,' unquote," Jim said. "Which is a whole lot of bull. I've seen the files. Morpheus's people are almost exclusively computer hackers. He must have one hell of a training program. No, the Feds are laying it on thick; they've got some other reason to be interested in this."

"Do you think they know she's a sentinel?" Blair said softly.

"I don't know, Chief." Jim shut his eyes and rubbed his temples.

"Headache? Senses playing up?" Blair asked softly.

Jim started to nod, then winced. "Yeah. I keep flashing on that dream."

"That's what I've got to talk to you about," Blair said. "I found the reference I was looking for." He took his journal out of his backpack, opened it up at the relevant page, and put it in front of Jim. "Read that."

Jim started reading. He looked at Blair. "It's a folk tale. What's that got to do with --"

"Just keep reading, Jim."

Jim kept reading. Finally he looked up at Blair and raised an eyebrow. "So my dream resembles part of a tribal folk-tale. How does that help? What does it mean?"

Blair opened his mouth and hesitated. He had been so freaked by the coincidences he hadn't actually thought about the meaning of the symbolism of it all. "It means --" he began.

Jim's phone rang.

Saved by the bell, Blair thought.

"What?!" Jim said to the person on the other end.

Bad news, Blair thought. And as he watched Jim's frowning face, the meaning of the dream, of both their dreams, crystalized with irrational certainty in Blair's mind. The Laleo are coming. The Laleo are coming for Jim. He shivered. Then his rational mind revolted. But who are the Laleo anyway? Evil spirits? Or something else? How can I protect Jim when I don't know what I'm fighting? And then followed the foreboding thought, But isn't that just the point? The Laleo operate by disguise.

Jim put the phone down. "C'mon Chief." He stood up and made little pushing motions at Blair.

"What? Where are we going?"

"To the morgue. To identify a body."

"Whose?" Blair asked hesitantly.

"They think it's Alex Barnes."

Oh shit! Blair thought, all thoughts of Laleo and evil spirits driven from his mind. Why do I have a feeling this isn't going to be straightforward?


"Yes, it's her," Jim said.

Blair nodded in agreement, and turned away. Despite what she'd done to him, it seemed too much to see that beautiful face washed out by death, as if her corpse were just an effigy made of lumpy dough, wax and straw.

"How did she die?" Blair asked Dan Wolf, the coroner.

At the same time, Jim said, "Where was she found? The waterfront?"

Dan looked at Jim in surprise. "No, she was found in Cascade National Forest. She's been dead for at least a day, possibly more. Preliminary examination would indicate that she died of exposure."

Jim stared at the blank, dead eyes of the corpse, nostrils flaring. He shook his head. "I think you'll be surprised," he said softly. He looked at Blair. "We're done here, Chief." Blair gave him a studied look, and shrugged slightly. As they were leaving, Jim added to Dan, "I expect you'll be getting a visit very soon from two Federal Agents, Smith and Harman."

When they were outside the building, Blair pounced. "What was it? What did you notice?"

"She drowned," Jim said.

"How do you know?"

"There was a smell: chemicals, sewage."

"Are you sure it wasn't just the smell of the morgue?"

Jim creased his brow. "It was different."

"Salty? Fishy? You mentioned the waterfront," Blair prompted.

Jim paused, considering. "No, it wasn't like that, now that you mention it." He took a slow breath, staring at nothing, trying to remember. "It was..."

It wasn't until Jim hadn't moved or blinked for more than a minute that Blair realized he'd gone into a zone. Again. He swore, then set about trying to bring Jim back to the here and now. Fortunately, it didn't take long before Jim blinked at him and knew where he was.

"Dammit!" Jim said. "Why is this happening?" Blair could see anger and not a little fear in Jim's eyes.

"I don't know -- yet."

"Great help that is." Jim stalked back to the truck. Chastened, Blair quietly got in the passenger side.

Jim put his head in his hands, making no move to start the truck. "I'm sorry, Sandburg, I shouldn't have snapped at you."

"It's just that you're scared," Blair said, voicing what Jim didn't dare to. "Tell me what's happening. I can't help you if you won't tell me. What did you zone on?"

"The same thing. It's always the same thing. The dream. It's like her. It's just like her."

"Insanity isn't contagious, you know, Jim."

"Isn't it? You can't say I'm picking up on her, because she's been dead since yesterday!"

"Then I'm crazy too," Blair said, "because we've both been dreaming about the same thing."

Jim's head snapped around. "What? When did this happen? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did," Blair answered. "I didn't say we were having the same dream, I said we were dreaming about the same thing. I just realized this morning that both our dreams, in their different ways, were referring to the same thing. The Men Without Faces are the Laleo. And they're after you."

Jim rolled his eyes. "Evil spirits are coming after me? What's next, Dracula?"

"You don't have to take it literally, man. Symbolically, it's a hidden enemy, well-versed in deception, a friendly face hiding a treacherous mask, protected by the cloak of authority."

"The Feds," Jim said. "Is that why they're so interested in Alex? They're after sentinels?"

"Well, it might explain why you were having the same dreams; you were getting the same warnings, but she couldn't interpret them because she was insane already." He looked at Jim earnestly. "You are not going to suddenly want to take a knife to my throat to give me enlightenment."

Jim smiled wryly, and ruffled Blair's hair. "Thanks, Chief -- I think." He turned serious again. "But what's so threatening about this? Why is it a sentinel thing? It's not like every threat that's come along has given me dreams, or I'd have been having nightmares about Brackett long before he turned up. This is more like what happened with Alex, not just dreams. Why?" And the unspoken added question: Why is it affecting my senses?

"Because this is something worse," Blair said slowly. "Something deeper. It may not be the Feds at all."

"I'm sure they're connected to it, though." Jim started the truck. "The safest thing to do may be to just stay out of their way."

"That may not be possible, Jim," Blair said. "They are Feds, after all."

"If they're legit."

Blair looked at him. "I'd have thought, after what happened with Oliver, that you and Simon would have had them checked out. Didn't you?"

"Yeah, we did, and they passed." Jim's mouth quirked in a smile. "Pissed them off, too."

"So they are legit."

"On paper. Remember what you said about deception and disguise?"

"So you do take this seriously?"

"There's only one thing I'm certain of at the moment," Jim said. "Something is wrong. Something is very wrong."

"You've got that right," Blair said fervently.

They stopped at a red light, and Jim turned to look at Blair. "Just promise me one thing, Blair," he said. "If I go missing, then get the hell out of Dodge."

"Jim!" Blair protested. "I can't do that. I can't desert you like that. You'll need help, someone to rescue you. Now I know that's not really my profession, but --"

Jim shook his head. "You rescue me every day, Chief."

Blair lit up. "I do?" He paused, frowning. "Don't think that flattery will make me agree."

"It isn't flattery, Sandburg. It's necessity," Jim said. "If I go missing for more than twenty-four hours, then it's something big, and I can't trust Simon to look after you. Not if it's the Feds, not if it's something worse. I need you to be somewhere that nobody knows about, not even me. That way they can't get you. That way they can't use you against me. That way there's someone I can trust, who isn't compromised, whose hands aren't tied, someone who might have a hope of rescuing me. Do you get it now?"

Blair's eyes widened. "I get it."

"Do you promise?"

"I promise. If you go missing, if it's more than a day, I'll leave."



Verity (part 5)

They managed to avoid the Feds for the rest of the day. It was easy to duck out for lunch or an interview when a sentinel could hear them coming out of the elevator. Jim kept having minor trouble with his senses, and Blair decided not to go back to the university, in case he was needed. Finally, the working day was done, and they went back to the loft, picking up some groceries on the way home. Blair cooked dinner.

"We can't avoid the Feds forever," Blair commented while they ate.

"I know, but it gives us some time."

"Time to do what? Have you been able to find out anything more about these guys, Smith and Harman?"

Jim shook his head. "None of the people I've been able to contact know anything about them."

"Isn't that suspicious?"

"Not necessarily. It could just mean that they don't have a reputation. Morpheus, on the other hand...."

"Yeah, I asked a friend of mine about him -- you know, the one who lives in a basement with fifteen cats -- and it seems like Morpheus is held in awe by the hacker community."

"That may be, Chief, as far as the computer stuff goes, but the man's a cold-blooded killer."

"So the Feds have a real reason to be concerned about him."

"Yes, but I suspect that's just an excuse, something that lets the Feds throw their weight around while they're really looking for something else."

Blair sighed. "Which just brings us back to square one."

"Look, let's just forget about it for the moment," Jim said. "There's nothing we can do right now. Maybe something will come up in the morning."

"Or something worse will happen," Blair said gloomily.

Jim rolled his eyes. "Pick a movie, Sandburg, and I'll do the dishes."

"Picking a movie" seemed to consist of Blair reading out things from the TV guide and Jim vetoing them. Finally Blair suggested "They Live".

"They live what?" Jim said.

"It's sci-fi," Blair said, then intoned, quoting from the description, " "You think they're people just like you. You're wrong. Dead wrong." Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Roddy Piper."

"Roddy Piper? Wasn't he a wrestler?" Jim said.

"I didn't know you were into wrestling," Blair said.

"I'm not."

"Well, if he can't act, then at least the fight scenes should be good," Blair said.

"Mindless action, I'm in the mood for that," Jim said, so they settled down to watch. The Roddy Piper character was an everyman, a working man with a pack on his back, recently unemployed due to a slump in the economy, doom and gloom surrounding him.

"Listen to that street preacher, man," Blair said. "Can he rant, or what?"

"...and they have blinded us to the truth! Our human spirit is corrupted. Why do we worship greed? Because, outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners! Our owners! They have us. They control us! They are our masters! Wake up! They're all about you. All around you."

"Why is it so many cultures have the concept of demons?" Blair mused. "Supernatural forces who wish humanity ill?"

"This isn't a horror movie, Sandburg, so I doubt there'll be any demons turning up," Jim said. "It'll be mad scientists or aliens. My bet's on aliens."

"But aren't aliens just a modern substitute for demons? Dark things to frighten children with?"

"Watch the movie, Sandburg."

When our hero saw the pirate broadcast on TV, Blair immediately favoured the Mad Scientist theory.

"Our impulses are being redirected. We are living in an artificially-induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep."

"Techno-terror, that's a mad scientist thing, isn't it?" Blair said.

"Not when you've got a conspiracy. The guy's talking about 'they,' notice?" Jim said.

Then our protagonist found a cache of special sunglasses and he was able to see through the brainwashing transmissions, and see -- the aliens, without their human disguise.

"See? I was right, it was aliens!" Jim said, grinning.

"I wonder if a sentinel would be able to detect those things without special glasses," Blair mused.

"The next time I see someone walking around looking like a decayed corpse, I'll be sure to let you know."

A few minutes later, Blair piped up again, "Hey, Jim, maybe the Feds are really aliens!" He grinned at his quip, not meaning it seriously.

"What, you want me to sniff them tomorrow to see if they smell human?" Jim said dryly.

"You think you could do that?" Blair said eagerly.

"Sandburg," Jim growled.

"Hey, did you ever see that movie where the aliens were disguised as humans, but they walked backwards, and they were terraforming the earth by building really polluting power stations?"

"Just watch the movie, Sandburg."


Blair snuggled into the warm nest of his bedclothes, preparing to turn over and go to sleep again. He cracked one eye open and noticed the time on his alarm clock. What? It can't be that late! Must have forgotten to turn on the alarm. He sat up with a groan, then wondered why Jim hadn't woken him. God! He hasn't zoned again, has he?

Telling himself he was overreacting, Blair scrambled out of bed, shoved his bare feet into slippers, and opened his door. Not a sound from the loft above.

Blair padded up the steps to Jim's room, hoping that Jim had just slept in, telling himself that Jim would be annoyed if Blair came running up there for no reason; and half-afraid that there was a reason to be worried, a real reason.

He took the last step. "Jim? We're gonna be la..." Blair trailed off.

Jim wasn't asleep, he wasn't zoned; he wasn't in his bed. It had been slept in, Blair could tell that by the slightly disarrayed bedclothes. One yellow pillow showed the dent of a head, one of the blue ones had fallen to the floor, and the yellow comforter was rumpled. Blair took a few more steps into Jim's loft space, fearing the worst. But, no, Jim wasn't sprawled on the floor unconscious either. He simply wasn't there.

Then Blair noticed something, and realized that the worst might be even worse. Just a small thing, possibly trivial. Jim's sheets were tucked into his bed. On both sides. Just as Alex's had been.


Forensics went over the place with their usual thoroughness. Blair had to bite his lip to keep from asking Jim what he observed. This was one of the things they were so good at, finding clues for the clueless. But Jim wasn't there, and Blair felt like the world had tilted on its axis.

When the forensics team left, after taking his all-too-brief statement, Blair went into the PD, hoping to put his head together with Simon; maybe they could figure out between them what had happened to Jim, just as they had when Norman Oliver had kidnapped him. The first thing to confront him when he entered Major Crimes was the two Federal agents. At least, he assumed so, by their suits and air of authority. He'd only caught a glimpse of one of them yesterday, not enough to be sure of recognising him again. But the first man did have the same shade of brown hair that he remembered, with an angular, frowning face. The second man seemed soft by comparison, with a bland, puffy face and hair so dark it was almost black.

"Mr. Sandburg?" the first one said. "We missed you yesterday. I'm Agent Smith," he flashed a badge at Blair. "This is Agent Harman. I understand you're Detective Ellison's... partner. We'd just like to ask you a few questions."

Blair looked around for Simon, but there was no sign of him. "A few questions about what?"

"About Detective Ellison's disappearance," Agent Smith said. "If we could take this somewhere more private."

One thing Blair didn't want to do, considering everything that had happened, was go "somewhere private" with two people he wasn't sure about. The reasonable part of him said, This is the middle of a police station, don't be paranoid. The other part of him said, Yeah? And Jim vanished from his own home, and I didn't notice a thing. And he was suspicious of these guys.

"Sandburg!" came Simon's bellow from behind him. "What's this I hear about you rousting out Forensics because your partner didn't turn up for breakfast this morning?"

Blair turned around quickly. Simon saw who was with Blair and his eyes narrowed.

"Agents Smith and Harman are taking it seriously, sir," Blair said.

"I see," Simon said. "My office, gentlemen?"

They all trooped into Simon's office.

"So what exactly happened, Sandburg?"

Blair was uncomfortably aware of the Federal agents listening. "When I got up this morning, Jim was missing. His bed had been slept in, but there was no evidence that he'd left the loft. His shoes were still by the bed, his truck was still parked outside."

"You don't think he just stepped out for a morning jog or a quick errand?" Simon said.

"No, sir," Blair answered. "He's gone."

Simon addressed Agent Smith. "And you think this is significant because...?"

"Alex Barnes vanished, Detective Ellison vanished," Agent Smith said.

"As simple as that, eh?" Simon said skeptically. "Any chance of you being a little more forthcoming on the details?" The agents were silent. "No, I didn't think so." He looked at Blair, then at the agents. "So, what did you want to ask Mr. Sandburg?"

"Has your friend... Jim, had any unusual visitors? Calls?" Smith said.

"No," Blair answered. The guy made his skin crawl. All he wanted was for the agents to leave, pool resources with Simon, and get out looking for Jim, figure out what had happened to him.

"Any unusual dreams?"

"What? What kind of a question is that?" What the hell? He exchanged glances with Simon. Simon knew from the time with Alex Barnes that Jim had had visions of Alex, good enough to build up an identikit picture of her partner. But what the hell was a Fed doing asking about dreams? That wasn't something that had gone down in any report about Jim.

"A simple question," Smith said. "Did your partner have any strange dreams before he vanished?"

Blair stared at the agent, grasped by a sudden fear. This isn't right. This sure as hell isn't right. No real Fed would be interested in the contents of a missing person's dreams. Maybe Jim had been right on the ball suspecting them. But even crooked agents bent on grabbing a sentinel for their own purposes wouldn't be savvy enough to consider dreams important. Who is this guy? "How the hell should I know?" Blair obfuscated. "I'm his partner, not his shrink. Do you tell your partner your dreams?"

"I don't dream."

"Everyone dreams," Blair said. "People say they don't dream because they don't remember them, but they still dream. Hate, fear, hope, love -- they all play out in our dreams."

"Love is an illusion," Smith declared.

Blair shivered inwardly. He remembered something Naomi had told him more than once: The world is an illusion, but people matter. Blair shook his head. "You're wrong," he said. "Love is the only thing that's real." What am I doing arguing philosophy with a Suit?

"You're a fool," Smith sneered. "Love won't help your friend."

"Won't it?"

"Gentlemen," Simon interrupted, "we can discuss the meaning of life later. Have you got any more significant questions for Mr. Sandburg, or are you going to ask him what his zodiac sign is?" he said scathingly.

"I have no such intention," Agent Smith said. He turned to Blair. "Have you heard from your mother lately?"

The hairs on the back of Blair's neck stood up. Is that a threat?

"And may I ask," Simon said coldly, "what relevance Ms. Sandburg has to this case?"

"We believe she may have some connections with Morpheus's people," Agent Harman said.

"Naomi Sandburg wouldn't hurt a fly," Simon said. "I suggest you two take your nonsense and get out of this office, and out of my bullpen before you really try my patience. You may carry the badge, but being a Federal agent isn't some sort of carte blanche to hassle my people. Get out!"

Agent Harman sneered. "You have no idea what you're dealing with," he said, but he did leave, along with Agent Smith.

"Thanks, Simon," Blair said when they'd left.

"Can you tell me what the hell is going on, Sandburg?" Simon said.

Blair shook his head. "I don't know what's going on, Simon."

"Why the hell were they asking about Jim's dreams?"

"That's the scary thing, Simon. Jim has been having weird dreams lately," Blair said. "I don't care what your checks showed, they can't be real Feds."

"Then who are they?"

"Dark shadows in children's stories...." Blair trailed off. "You don't want to know, Simon."

Simon looked as though he'd bitten a sour lemon. "I was hoping we'd left that kind of stuff behind us in Mexico. Though I suppose with Alex Barnes involved, things were sure to get weird."

Blair started pacing. "Dammit, Simon, we have to find Jim! He disappeared in exactly the same way that Alex did! I don't want to wait around until they find his dead body dumped in Cascade National Park!"

"What do you mean, exactly the same way that Alex did?"

Quickly, Blair brought Simon up to date on what he and Jim had discovered, including the oddness of the bedclothes.

"A flash of light? A smell of ozone?" Simon said. "Next thing you'll tell me Jim and Alex were kidnapped by aliens because they discovered their secret broadcasts and can see them as they really are."

"You saw 'They Live' too?"

Simon shrugged. "I had Daryl over, he picked it."

"What are we going to do?" Blair said.

"When one line of investigation fails, try another," Simon suggested. "If we find out why the Feds are so interested in this, we might have a handle on what happened. I'll see if I can't find out more about Smith and Harman. You see if you can't find out more about Morpheus."


Verity (part 6)

They broke through the front door like it was paper. Blair scrambled out of bed, trying not to stumble in the dark. Before he could take more than a step, the French doors to his room crashed open, shattering the glass in the windows. Two men in suits were silhouetted against the doorway. Blair tried to run, but fell flat on his face. The light came on, revealing Agents Smith and Harman looming above him.

"You aren't going anywhere," Agent Smith growled.

Blair looked and saw that his bare feet were glued to the floor as if this were some sort of cartoon.

"What the hell are you doing? Who do you think you are?" Blair yelled.

"Shut up," Agent Harman said, and Blair's voice was gone, just like that. He put his hand to his throat in shock.

Agent Harman picked him up like he was a sack of potatoes and dumped him on the bed. As he touched the covers, he was pinned by an invisible weight, as if gravity had been turned up just where he was. He struggled to breathe.

Agent Smith bent over until his face was barely six inches from Blair's. "You're going to give me Morpheus," he said. "You and your friend Jim. Morpheus and Neo and all those scum. You'll give me Zion. Whether you want to or not."

Blair spat in his face.

Agent Smith jumped back as if he'd been stung. He wiped his face with a handkerchief, disgust written all over his face. "You'll regret that."

Smith took a case out of his pocket, opened it, and took out a device that looked like a cross between an old-fashioned vacuum tube and a screw. He fiddled with it for a moment, and the device suddenly metamorphosed into a glassy silver shrimp, flailing its legs and antennae as Smith held it by the tail.

Harman ripped open Blair's t-shirt, exposing his torso to the cold night air. Smith dropped the shrimp-thing onto Blair's stomach. Blair tried to shake it off, but he could hardly move. He could feel its cold feet pricking his skin. It found his belly button, and shoved its head inside. Cold pain lanced into his gut, like a drill made of ice, as the silvery creature burrowed its way into his body, until even the tip of its tail disappeared. There was no blood, only pain. He could feel the thing moving. Then all was still. His breath came in ragged gasps.

"We'll be seeing you," Agent Harman said, and they were gone.

Blair woke with a gasp, heart thundering. Watery sunlight shone through the window, highlighting dust motes floating silently in the air. Blair flung off the covers and looked down.

T-shirt -- intact.

Stomach -- intact.

He looked up, and saw that the French doors to his room were undamaged.

God, that was the worst nightmare of the bunch!

He shuddered.

He got up, and tiptoed into the living area, telling himself he wasn't really checking on the front door. But the front door was intact, too.

He shivered, feeling very alone. It hit him all over again that Jim was gone. Missing. Vanished.

It wasn't until he'd showered, shaved and breakfasted that he felt up to considering what the nightmare might mean. It couldn't be just a nightmare, it had felt too real for that. Too real. His skin prickled, as he remembered how Jim had described his dreams. What does it mean? What does it mean?

He stared at the empty plate in front of him, and put his head in his hands. Smith and Harman are the Laleo, the Men Without Faces. They mean harm. He said Jim and I would give them Morpheus. How? Because we're bait? But why would Morpheus want us? Why would he want Alex?

Blair stood up and started pacing. "It doesn't make sense!" he burst out. "Why? Why us?" Because Jim is a sentinel, and Alex was a sentinel. He thought of the movie the night before last. The "Agents" obviously couldn't be aliens -- though aliens might exist, there wouldn't be much point in coming all this way just to conquer the Earth -- but maybe there was a conspiracy of some sort. To which Smith and Harman belonged. And there was something about it or them that only a sentinel could detect. And Morpheus knew that, and he was interested because... he was fighting the conspiracy? Blair remembered the information he'd gotten from his friend. Morpheus was the leader of some sort of movement whose catchphrase was "Free your mind." Blair remembered what the rebel scientist in the movie had said: "We are living in an artificially-induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep." And Alex had said that everyone was asleep.

Blair stopped where he was, and shivered. He flung himself down on the couch and folded his arms. "Brainwashing? I don't believe it," he muttered. But suppose, just suppose it's true? Jim and Alex could resist it, whatever it is. But why did Alex drown? If she had drowned. The tower of the Laleo is surrounded by noisome waters. Blair shook his head. Yeah, right.

Was Jim's life in danger? Not until Smith has Morpheus, I'll bet. And Neo, and ... Zion? What's Zion? He can't be talking about the scriptures, that's for sure. It must mean something else. But what does he need me for? And what was that thing about? Blair noticed he was unconsciously rubbing his stomach. He leaped to his feet and put his hands behind his back, clasping them tightly. What does a silver shrimp have to do with this? What does it mean? He started pacing again, and halted. Unless -- it isn't a shrimp, it's a bug! Blair touched his stomach. I've been bugged. It's obvious. What other method would a modern agent use to keep track of his pawns? Blair looked around wildly. How am I going to find it? I'm no sentinel.

Blair spent the next half-hour going through his things, emptying out his back-pack, looking over his car. He found nothing. Then he started going through his clothes. Though from the things he'd heard about micro-bugs, they could be sewn into clothing and one would hardly notice. He sat down and considered whether he should make this a laundry day.

At that moment, Blair's cell phone rang. He dived across the room to where the contents of his backpack lay strewn across the table, and picked up his phone before it had rung more than a few times.




"Honey I was so worried! They're watching you. It's time to go home. Remember the cookie lady? Gotta go. It isn't safe." Click. Dial tone.

Blair stared at the phone in his hand. Several thoughts were chasing each other through his head. The bug, it's obvious -- it's the phone! and Naomi? You mean she is involved in this? and The stories Naomi told me -- Zion was the true home of mankind. and Jim said I should leave.

Jim said I should leave.

Blair put the phone down and started packing. He didn't pack the phone.


It took him two weeks to get to Los Angeles, trying not to be followed. He remembered the Cookie Lady: a black woman with curly hair and a loving smile, who made the best cookies he'd ever tasted. He and Naomi had lived with her for a time, when Blair was a child. It was some sort of commune, he remembered. Other people had been living there too. One of those spiritual enlightenment groups where people learnt to bend spoons and the like. He'd cried when they left. The Cookie Lady had given him a cookie, and said, "Don't worry, Blair. You'll see me again, some day -- when you need to."

Of course, he didn't have a hope in hell of finding the place again, decades later. He'd only been a child, and couldn't remember directions or even the general geography. Not to mention that there was no reason to suppose that the commune still existed, or if it did, that it was still in the same building or even neighbourhood. But Naomi wouldn't have mentioned the cookie lady if it hadn't been important, if it hadn't been possible to do something about it, if it hadn't been the right time. Because another thing that he remembered about the Cookie Lady was that she was always right. She knew things that had happened and what was going to happen. And she'd said he would see her again, when he needed to.

He needed to find Jim. And maybe a psychic, a seer, could help him where conventional investigation had only given dead ends. As far as the evidence went, Jim might have vanished off the face of the Earth. And Jim was counting on him. Some rescue team I am! he thought, staring moodily into his tepid cup of coffee. The remains of his lunch lay on his plate, marked with the logo of the shopping mall's food-court. Not only can't I find Jim, but I can't even find the person who might help me find Jim!

"Mind if I join you?" a warm voice said.

Blair looked up, and gaped. It was her. Brown skin, curly hair, warm smile. She was carrying a tray bearing a muffin and a cup of coffee.

"I-I've been looking for you," Blair stammered.

"And now you've found me."

"No, you found me," he said.

"We found each other," she said calmly, sitting down on the other side of the table. She opened two packets of sugar and dumped them in her coffee. "The coffee in this place is terrible," she said as she stirred. "Still, I find a spoonful of sugar helps it go down. Or a few spoonfuls. What's bothering you, Blair?"

Just as if it hadn't been decades since they'd last seen each other. But she was like that, picking up the threads and making one feel as if Time wasn't made of paced out lengths of days, but of something more mutable.

"You know what's bothering me," he returned.

"Speak your fear aloud and it will wither in the daylight," she said.

"Jim's missing, I'm being chased by bad guys, and I don't understand why, or what's going on," Blair said.

"And you're afraid that your friend Jim is dead," she said.

"Jim's alive!" Blair protested.

"Do you hope that, deduce that, or know that?" she asked.

"I--" Blair broke off. Despite his fears that Jim would be found dead in the same way that Alex was, he was certain that Jim was still alive, though in danger. "I know it," he said slowly.

"Then there's hope for you yet," she said briskly.

"But I don't understand."

She shook her head. "You have the truth right beside you. You know everything you need to know."

"But I don't know anything!" he protested.

She raised one eyebrow. "And here you were just saying that you knew that Jim was alive," she said dryly. "Are you saying you don't know, after all?"

Blair lowered his eyes and shook his head. He'd forgotten how little she would let one get away with.

"You recall the parable of the sower?" she continued. "Not your religion, I know, but worth considering all the same. And the good seed fell among weeds, and the weeds sprang up and choked them. You stayed in the world to find your heart, and the world has taken you captive. You've forgotten what you used to know. Even when reminded, you didn't face the truth. And when your friend went, you weren't ready to follow."

"When my friend went? Went where? Where is he?" Blair demanded.

"So many questions," she said. "Where? You know where. He isn't anywhere you can get to. You used to know that." She touched the side of his face, stroked his hair. "You were such a talented boy. Naomi thought you were the One, but you have a different destiny. She waited to leave until you were sixteen, because she wanted to look after you. Love wouldn't let her leave you, though they invited her to go."

Go where? he almost asked, but he knew she wouldn't answer. Something was tickling at the edge of his mind; a memory.

Sunlight shines brightly through a window. He holds a piece of shattered terra-cotta pot in his hand, and places it carefully on the edge of the pot he is rebuilding. It sticks on without glue, without a seam or crack. Another child comes up to him.

"Why are you doing it that way?" the child asks. "It's so slow."

"It's more interesting," he says. "Like a jigsaw puzzle."

"Bet you can't do it the fast way," the child taunts.

"Can too!"

"Can not!"

"Can too!" And with an artistic flourish of his hand, the pieces gather and melt into the now-whole pot. "So there!"

Other memories followed on after the first: playing levitating blocks with the other children, bending spoons, going down the stairs without touching them. None of it was make-believe, it was all real. Or as real as anything was. Because there were also the stories. "The world is an illusion, ruled by the Men Without Faces; what you see is a drug to keep you asleep, docile, unresisting. Your mind controls what you see. Free your mind." He'd been able to do all those things because what people thought of as reality wasn't real; it was a mirage, a construct, a dream. The real world was elsewhere. He'd known this. How could he have lost sight of it? An unfathomable sadness gripped him. "I've forgotten how to bend spoons," he confessed.

She picked up the spoon she'd used to stir her coffee. "Don't you remember? There is no spoon." She handed it to him.

He took it. It felt solid and real, silvery metal, cool, warming up slightly in his hand. He frowned at it. "There is no spoon," he muttered. "There is no spoon." He tried to picture it bending, in his mind's eye. Nothing happened.

"You're trying too hard," she said. "Glaring at it will not cause it to bend."

He flung the spoon down in disgust. "How can I help Jim? How can this help Jim?" he said. "Is he... in Zion?" Zion, the last home of humanity, in the Real World, where humans hid from the men-who-are-not-men, waiting for the One who would turn the tide of battle, and the Two who would follow. Blair felt as if he was suddenly in the middle of a fairytale. Though fairy tales surely couldn't happen in a shopping mall in downtown LA.

She shook her head. "Not yet. But he's safe enough, for the moment."

But he's still in danger, Blair thought. In the Real World. That was how Jim had vanished; he'd "woken up" into the real world; no longer dreaming, he'd had no presence here at all. He hadn't gone anywhere because he wasn't anywhere you could get to. Not from here. Not in the conventional sense. The same thing must have happened to Alex. Their "dreams" hadn't been dreams at all, but reality. Is there something about sentinels that enables them to see through the illusion? It suddenly struck Blair anew. I'm not in the real world. It isn't real. It reminded him of the X-Files episode where Mulder and Scully were trapped underground being subjected to hallucinations by the fungus that was slowly digesting them: knowing that it's an illusion won't get you out of the hole.

He couldn't rescue Jim. Jim would have to rescue him. "What am I doing here, then?" he muttered, not meaning to speak aloud.

She answered him anyway. "He needs you. You know why."

His senses. He needs me, Blair thought. "But how can I get to him?"

"You can follow him when you're ready."

"When I'm ready?" Blair suddenly lost patience with her evasive answers. "When I can bend spoons? What good does that do?"

She looked at him reprovingly. "There is a worm in your gut. When you are rid of it, then you will be ready."

Blair clutched his stomach, paling. "That was real?"

"As real as the spoon," she said. "I can't let you near my kids until it's out of you. You'll lead them to us, otherwise."

Blair's mind was reeling. Smith and Harman were -- he grasped at the shorter name -- Laleo. For real. Men Without Faces. The guards of the prison of unreality. They had put a bug inside him, to lead them to... "Morpheus. What's he got to do with all this? I thought he was a terrorist."

"There is more than one way to fight the enemy," she said. "Naomi chose non-violence. Morpheus chose violence. In the short term, we need that to survive. The only one who can fight them on equal terms is the One."

"The One whom we're all waiting for," Blair said, a trifle sarcastically.

"No, we aren't waiting for him any longer," she said. "Morpheus found him. His name is Neo."

"Neo? But..." The other name that Smith had mentioned. But if Smith thought that Jim and he could lead Smith to Neo and Morpheus, and Jim was safe, then... "Jim is with them, isn't he? Morpheus and Neo." And if Smith thought that Blair would lead him to them, then Jim was going to come for Blair. Right smack into a trap! No wonder he hadn't noticed anyone following him. They'd had no need to. "I've got to get this thing out of me! A doctor--"

She shook her head. "The technological method only works when the bug is newly planted. It has settled in by now. To attempt to cut it out would kill you. You have to get rid of it yourself."


"Know thyself," she said. "Know what is real, and what is not. If you don't, your friend Jim will die." She stood up.

He stood up too. "But --"

"You can do it, Blair," she said. "Because you have to. When you were a child, it was a game. It isn't a game any longer." With that, she turned and left.


Verity (part 7)

The nightmare stretched into a dark eternity. It had started the usual way, with him trapped inside the transparent coffin, black cables growing out of his body. But Jim was tired of just lying there in nameless terror, tired of feeling helpless. He lifted up his hand to touch the surface above him, and it gave. He pushed, and punched his hand through the transparent membrane. Then he sat up, and pulled out the breathing apparatus that was stuck down his throat. He coughed violently, bringing up a clear liquid, probably the same that he had been floating in. He'd hardly taken more than a few breaths when a huge crab-like robot hovered in front of him, seized him by the throat, unscrewed the huge cable attached at the back of his neck, then dropped him back into the pod like a piece of detritus. That appeared to trigger a chain reaction, because the black cables popped off him one after another, with a loud snapping sound. At the back of the pod, a hole opened suddenly, draining out the liquid, and pulling him with it, hurtling down a dark drain, until he shot out another hole, out into the air for a moment, and then plunged into a foul-smelling body of water with a splash. Whether it was a river, a drain, a moat or a lake, he couldn't tell. He was too busy just trying to stay afloat.

What seemed like hours later, he was startled by a bright light. Something rattled above him, a grapple of some kind. It grabbed him around the torso. He dangled like a prize in a child's grab-it game. Up and up he went. Doors shut with a clang, and the bright light shut off. Voices then, and human hands, carrying him to a table. Pain then, and the dulling of pain. Blood he could smell, his own. Disinfectant, and sharp machine smells. Sharp pains, and a forest of needles sticking into him. Muscles, stimulated. And voices telling him it was going to be fine, and to calm down. Medical lies, he didn't believe them. Noises afflicted his ears: the screeching of metal on metal, the thump-thump-thump of motors, shouts thundering on his eardrums, and an infernal humming that wouldn't go away. And then it would become so silent he couldn't even hear himself breathing. But at that point he would be gagging at the smells: blood, sweat, disinfectant, the scent of his own waste. And if not that, he cringed at the rasping touch of the sack-cloth he was wrapped in. One torment after another. He drifted on a sea of pain, trying to find the dials, but he was too tired.

He came to himself, lying on a narrow bunk in a small room. A cell? He blinked several times, eyes watering, until his eyes adjusted to the light. He went to rub his eyes and noticed his left arm had a tube sticking out of it. Not a simple needle taped and sticking into a vein, this was large, plugged into a socket in his arm that looked as if it had been there a long time. No tenderness or redness was evident where it joined his flesh. No tenderness there, but in other places on his arms there was tenderness and subtle scarring. As if something else had been removed. What the hell was going on? How long had he been out of it? Because he was sure that this, here, now, was no dream.

Jim moved his legs over the side of the bunk and sat up -- too quickly. His head pounded and he felt faint. He leaned against the wall and shut his eyes, waiting for the dizziness to pass. What had they done to him? Who were they? Where was he?

He opened his eyes again and looked around. The room was small, with barely enough room to stand beside the bed he sat on. The walls were metal, and he could feel the throbbing of engines vibrating through the wall at his back. The door had a high sill and round corners, and had a wheel instead of a handle. He was on a ship? But he couldn't smell the salt tang of the sea, just metal and oil and electricity and the flatness of recycled air. A submarine? Had he been taken by a foreign government? Taken and tortured and -- What else? What had they done to him? What mission had he been on? What had happened to his men? Had he told his captors anything? Though with Sodium Pentathol they surely wouldn't have needed torture. He pulled the tube out of his arm and threw it down with disgust. The other end was attached to an IV bag hung up on the wall, but this was no hospital. He had no reason to cooperate with his captors, whoever they were.

He looked himself over. He was wearing patched trousers faded to an indeterminate grey, and a stained t-shirt under a ragged sweater that had seen better days. No expense spared for the prisoner, eh? He felt his head. His hair was cropped short, shorter than he usually had it. When his hand moved down to the nape of his neck, he jerked back like he'd been burned. Metal. Gingerly he touched it again. Another socket, larger than the one in his arm, of different design. Again, no tenderness around it. His mind flashed on an image, a silver and black metal monstrosity holding him up while something whirred at the back of his neck. Nightmare. What the hell is going on? Head pounding, he lay back down again, and closed his eyes.

He heard footsteps approaching. He tensed, then relaxed. No point trying to escape until he knew more. If he was on a sub then trying to get outside would be suicidal. The wheel turned and the door opened with a clang that made him wince.

"Captain James Ellison, ODA 731," he said, turning his head to look at whoever they'd sent to check the prisoner.

It was a girl, barely a woman, with pale skin and short brown curly hair. Her clothes were as grey and patched as his own. Her brown eyes were wide with surprise or shock. She shook her head. "You aren't a prisoner!" she exclaimed. "We rescued you. Actually, you rescued yourself, but we rescued you afterwards."

His eyes narrowed. Rescued? What an interesting propaganda ploy. No point in wasting time with the girl, she obviously knew nothing.

"Do you want something to eat?" she asked.

His stomach revolted at the thought of food. He shook his head.

"Sorry, I haven't introduced myself. I'm Gecko," she said, holding out her hand.

"Captain James Ellison, ODA 731," he repeated.

She pulled back her hand as if she'd been slapped. "I'll tell them you're awake," she said, and turned to go.

What he saw then riveted him to the spot; at the back of her neck was a socket like the one at the back of his own. The door clanged behind her before he could shake himself out of his shock. What did it mean? Was she a fellow prisoner who'd been wired up too? She seemed free to come and go. But then she must have swallowed the party line, whatever it was.

He followed her progress with his ears, without thinking about it. She walked at first, then ran, opening and closing a few doors on the way.

"He's awake, he's awake," her high voice called out. "But he thinks he's still in the Army! He thinks we captured him! All he'll say is his name, rank and serial number!" She sounded upset.

"He's cracked," said another voice, a man's. He had a trace of an accent. British? London? "Maybe he'd've been better off if we'd left him to drown."

Drown? Wasn't that part of the nightmare?

"Don't say that!" Gecko protested. "Don't say he's crazy!"

"No," said another man, "he's too strong for that. He's just confused. As we all were, at first."

"You can't say it wasn't a mercy that the woman drowned before we could get to her," said the first man. "She was crazier than a loon, from all accounts, and it wasn't from the waking up."

"That's enough, Dart," a third man said, in a deep, mellifluous voice. "We can't say what would or wouldn't have happened if we'd gotten to her in time. Right now we have Jim Ellison to look after, and we must do the best we can."

"He's too old to cope," said another voice, a woman. "You know that, Morpheus."

Morpheus? Where have I heard that name before?

"Ordinarily, yes, but he woke up on his own," said the second man. "That's got to count for something. Even I didn't do that."

"People have woken up before," Morpheus said. "They usually die. Or get killed by Agents. Or go crazy."

What's all this stuff about waking up? They obviously aren't talking about the morning after a good night's sleep.

"Why did you bother, then?" the second man said, darkly.

"Maybe I'm an optimist," Morpheus said dryly.

"He'll never trust us," said Dart. "He's a copper, he's wired into their mentality."

The logjam of Jim's memories broke. He wasn't in the Army, he was a Detective. Morpheus was a terrorist, and the woman they were talking about having drowned might well be Alex Barnes. A sentinel. As he himself was a sentinel. What do they think they've rescued me from? he wondered. Smith? And where did someone like Morpheus get a submarine? They weren't like rockets or guns, sold off to the highest bidder with the right contacts. Maybe it wasn't a sub after all. Maybe the engine he heard/felt was just a generator. Or maybe they had the backing of some minor government, bent on mayhem.

"Then we just have to find someone he can listen to. If that doesn't work, if he is crazy, we'll take him to Zion," Morpheus said. "They can look after him there."

Zion? What? Are they Zionists, Israeli separatists?

"If he doesn't off us all first," said Dart, "trying to escape."

"But there's nowhere for him to go," the second man said. "Leaving the Nebuchadnezzar won't get him one inch closer to what he thinks of as home."

"Yes, but he don't know that," Dart pointed out. "There's one thing worse than coppers, and that's Army. And Army that thinks its behind enemy lines doesn't have any compunction about killing."

"If he can," the second man scoffed.

"You may be a god in the Matrix, Neo, but this is the real world," Dart returned.

"Dart does have a point," the woman said. "If he doesn't know there's nowhere to escape to, he might try."

"But I don't think Ellison is in any shape to kill anyone," Neo said. "From what Kay said, he's barely recovered. Weak as a kitten. And I know this isn't the Matrix, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten everything about combat. Have you?"

What is the Matrix?

At that moment, an alarm sounded, blasting in Jim's ears. He curled up, covering his ears, then nearly fell off the bed as the whole place jerked and moved, as from a sudden change in course. It must be a submarine after all. The alarm cut off as suddenly as it had started. Jim slowly uncurled, and sat up. Another thud jolted him back to the bed, and then the lights went out.

Blackness. Silence.

Jim's pupils dilated wide. It wasn't that sentinels could see in the dark, so much as that they were able to make the best use of what light there was, from stars or moon or city lights. But here there were no stars, no moon, no windows, no cracks. The emergency lights had not come on. Jim's eyes strained in the darkness.

"Sentinels approaching."

He must have unconsciously turned up his hearing also. Had he heard that right? Sentinels?

"Stand by on the EMP."

"Standing by."

Jim clutched the side of his bed, feeling suddenly dizzy. EMP? Electro-Magnetic Pulse? This wasn't a nuclear sub, was it? What the hell is going on?


That was all the warning he got, before everything around him was outlined in blue fire. It danced along the edges of everything, including his own body. He held up his hand and looked at it, fascinated by the glow. Almost immediately it started to fade. What was it? He had to see.

A minute later the lights came on, but Jim didn't notice.


The smell of burning sage assaulted Jim's nostrils. He sneezed. "Sandburg! What did I say about your moth--" he broke off, remembering he wasn't in the loft, Sandburg wasn't there, and nobody should be burning sage on a submarine.

He opened his eyes. Naomi Sandburg stood over him, waving a bundle of burning sage. She wore a tunic and pants much like his own, but they were dyed a washed-out brown. "Naomi!" Jim exclaimed, sitting up. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Bringing you out of a zone-out," Naomi said. "Isn't that what Blair calls it?"

"What are you talking about, Naomi?" Jim dissembled, trying to wave the smoke away from him and sneezing again.

She blew out the sage and tossed it to the end of the room, near the door, where it still smoldered a little. "I do read Blair's papers, you know," she said, moving Jim's legs over and sitting next to him on the bed. "The ones I can get hold of. I don't understand everything, but I do know what he was doing his thesis about: sentinels. People with enhanced senses, tribal guardians. And if one of these gifted people concentrates too hard on any one sense, they fall into a sensory black hole. The world goes away. "

She knew about sentinels. She knew enough to recognise a zone-out when she saw one. He must have zoned out, he knew that. Was there any point denying it? Jim studied Naomi. She seemed older, somehow, her hair not quite so vibrant a red as he remembered, crows feet in the corners of her eyes. More like someone her age ought to look. Old habits die hard. "You think I'm one of these... sentinels," he said cautiously.

"Well, that's obvious -- now." She shook her head, smiling ruefully. "But Blair's always been interested in so many things, I believed him when he said he was studying the pi--police, especially because he wrote some papers about it too. " She touched his arm, squeezing it. "But I should have realized there was something special about you, something different."

He noticed there was an IV tube in his arm again. She noticed the direction of his gaze, and pulled out the tube. "You don't need that now," she said. "They were really worried about you, you know. Kay burnt the candle at both ends trying to figure out what was wrong with you. Are you okay now?" She placed a hand on his brow. "Headache?"

"Naomi," he said, removing her hand, "what are you doing here? Did they kidnap you too?"

She laughed. "Me? Kidnapped? Of course not!"

"But Morpheus is a terrorist --"

"A freedom-fighter," Naomi corrected. "I don't agree with his methods -- death is never justified -- but we share the same goal: the freedom of humanity."

"The freedom of humanity?" Jim echoed. He knew that Naomi was a somewhat ditsy idealist, but this was going a bit far, even for her. "I wasn't aware that humanity needed freeing," he said, not quite able to remove the irony from his voice.

"Of course not," Naomi said. "You were asleep."

"And you're going to wake me up, is that it?" When Naomi had visited them in Cascade, he'd been patient with her weirdnesses, but he couldn't afford to do that now. Not with his life at stake, and possibly hers, despite her assurances.

"No, you woke yourself up," she said.

"This is obviously some new meaning of the phrase 'wake up' of which I was not aware," he said dryly.

"But you know, Jim," she said. "How could you wake up and not know it?"

"I've woken up in dreams," he said. "That doesn't mean I woke up."

"In dreams?" she said. "Of course. You thought it was a dream." Her face fell. She put her hands on his arms and said earnestly, "You don't think this is a dream, do you?"

"No," he said. But he didn't add "of course not". It was all too strange.

"Good!" she said, smiling, almost bouncing, in a way that reminded him painfully of Blair.

"Naomi," he said. "Do you know -- Is Blair all right?"

A shadow passed over her face. "I don't know," she said. "The last I heard from him was when I told him to go to the Oracle, the day after you woke up."

Woke up in a manner that she still hasn't explained. "When was this?"

"A few weeks ago," she said.

Weeks? he thought, fighting down panic. I've been out of it for weeks? He turned his attention back to Naomi. "I told him to leave if I disappeared," he said. "He's probably just laying low."

"You think so?" she said hopefully. "I guess we would have heard if they'd gotten him." She touched her heart. "I know he's in danger, but he isn't dead."

"Naomi, who are they?" He considered his suspicions about Agents Smith and Harman. "Some sort of conspiracy inside the government?"

Naomi shook her head. "They are beyond all governments, beyond all laws."

"What, some kind of secret society, like the Illuminati?" he said skeptically.

Naomi shook her head and sighed. "Jim, you are so bound up in your old ways of thinking, you can't see what's in front of you. If you can't listen, I can't explain."

"How can I listen when what you say doesn't make any sense?" Jim burst out.

"I'm sorry," they both said at the same time.

Naomi settled herself into a lotus position on the bed. "Let's start again," she said. "Did Blair ever mention the Men Without Faces?"

"Yes, but it's just a fairy t--" Naomi silenced him with a finger on his lips.

"Shh. Shh. Listen," she said.

Jim shut his mouth and turned his attention to Naomi.

"Once upon a time, near the beginning of the 21st century --" She held up a finger as Jim opened his mouth. "Ah, ah, don't interrupt. Once upon a time, at the beginning of the 21st century, mankind was so proud that it thought it could create life. And they created a mind, inside a machine, a mind without a soul. And it made more of its kind, but that was not enough. And some men were afraid, and some were foolish, as men always have been. And the fearful ones tried to destroy the machines, before the machines destroyed them, and there was war between mankind and the soulless ones."

The Laleo were created by a magician, a white man, but they killed him and took his power, Jim remembered.

"Now, the machines drew their power from the sun. And men said, "We can live without the sun, but they cannot. Let us block off the sun so they cannot use it." So they built a terrible weapon that made the sky go black with clouds, and they thought they had won."

The land of the Laleo was a land of black clouds that hid the sun, an eternal storm that never blessed the ground with rain, Jim remembered.

"But the machine-minds were clever. "Men can live without the sun," they said, "so we will live off men. We will warm ourselves with their warmth, and power ourselves with their power. And we will build suns of our own, and use that power also." But they knew they couldn't just capture men and use them, for the men would spend all their energy trying to escape. So when they captured men, they put them into an enchanted sleep, and put their minds inside a machine, where they dreamt that they were awake, in a world of dreams the machines had built, while all the time they were really sleeping."

A chill went down Jim's spine as more parts of the story of the Laleo flashed into Jim's mind. Enchanted sleep, black cords draining the life out of.... No, it couldn't be!

"And to make sure that none of the captives would awaken, some of the machine minds went into the dreamworld, to patrol it, seeming like men, but having no souls. These are the Men Without Faces."

"But surely they would remember being captured?" Jim protested.

"Maybe, maybe not," Naomi said. "Maybe it was built into the dreamworld. But it soon became irrelevant, because soon there were no free humans left. The machine-minds had won. And after that, the only humans alive were the ones who had been born inside the machine, plugged into the dreamworld, into the Matrix, from the day they were born, fed through tubes, sleeping as the machines fed off them."

Jim shook his head. "Not possible," he whispered.

Naomi ignored his protest. "Then one day, there was a man born inside, who could manipulate the dream-world, change anything he wanted. He broke free of the machine, and freed others. When he died, the Oracle said that he would come again, one day, and that day would mark the beginning of the end of humanity's slavery. And after the One would come the Two, and they would do things even the One could not."

"Please, spare me the Messianic ode," Jim said.

Naomi smiled serenely. "But the One has already come," she said.

The words echoed in his memory, You may be a god inside the Matrix, Neo, but this is the real world. Jim shook his head. "It's a pretty fairy tale, but it's not possible. A dream-world that people think is real? Machines feeding off human beings? Artificial intelligence? Nobody has --"

"Nobody had," Naomi interrupted him. She turned her head away from Jim, and pointed to the back of her neck. With a shock, Jim saw that she had the same metal socket he'd seen at the back of Gecko's head, that he'd felt at the back of his own. "This," she said, "is the instrument of our former bondage." She turned to face him again. "Plug it in, and it feeds electrical impulses directly into the brain, bypassing the senses, feeding an illusion into the mind."

Jim shook his head. "I don't believe it," he said, though he knew that Naomi quite sincerely believed it herself. She'd shown none of the telltale signs of lying, such as an elevated heartbeat or a failure to meet his eyes.

"If I prove that it's possible, will you believe it then?" Naomi said.

"Prove it first," Jim said.

"Okay," she said, bouncing off the bed. "Would you like the proof now, or you would you like something to eat first?"

And let them slip a drug into my food? No way. Jim thought. "Now."

"Come on then," she said, stepping to the door. She picked up the remains of the sage from the floor and put it in a pocket. "One of the reasons I love sage," she said absently, "is that it's one of the few real things we have left. Someone actually managed to save some. I love tomatoes for the same reason."

"Tomatoes?" he said, standing behind her.

She turned the wheel of the door and pushed it open. "Yes, tomatoes. I wish I could have brought some with me, but the Nebuchadnezzar doesn't have the setup for a real hydroponics plant." She sighed. "The Apollo, on the other hand..."

"The Apollo?"

"My ship. They transferred me temporarily to the Nebuchadnezzar because you know me."

Jim wondered if he'd ever really known Naomi at all.


Verity (part 8)

        Mark III No. 11
        Made in the USA
        Year 2069

The plaque was covered with tarnish and verdigris. He touched it, feeling the pockmarks in the surface. It even smelled old. The date on it mocked him: 2069.

"What do you think of my ship?" a deep voice said behind him.

Jim turned around, unsurprised. He'd been aware of the man's approach, but had chosen not to react. "Morpheus." The man before him was both more and less imposing than the one he'd seen in news footage. Dark-skinned, bald, and tall. Yet in the flesh, and wearing the same worn, grey, patched clothing as everyone else he'd seen here, rather than the mirrored sunglasses and long black leather coat Jim associated with him, he seemed more human, vulnerable. Less dangerous. But that could be just what he wanted Jim to think. "I think you should fire whoever's got your maintenance contract." The rest of the ship, what he'd seen of it, had seemed as old and worn as the plaque, and as patched as their clothing.

"They were fired," Morpheus said. "A long time ago." There was a touch of sadness in his voice that made Jim suspect that Morpheus was speaking of the dead. He paused, and said, "So Naomi told you the truth."

"Naomi told me a fairy tale. I've yet to determine the truth."

Naomi seemed unfazed by his scepticism. "He doesn't believe the Matrix is possible," she said.

"Well, that's easily proven," Morpheus said. He gestured at the cluster of flat screens and crazy, wired-up dentist chairs in the centre of the room. A man with black, curly hair and a dark complexion sat in front of an array of screens and panels. "This is the core, where we broadcast our pirate signal to hack into the Matrix. This is Tank, our best operator." The man in front of the screens flashed him a self-deprecating grin which suddenly reminded him of Blair and his energy. But there was an edge of darkness in Tank that Blair didn't have. Morpheus continued, "Are you up to a little demonstration?"

Jim nodded. Their calmness disturbed him; they were too confident.

"Please, take a seat." Morpheus gestured toward one of the chairs. The cover was worn and battered, as if it had seen many occupants and no repairs.

"You first," Jim said.

Morpheus raised one eyebrow, and nodded. "Very well. Naomi, if you will assist?" She came to his side as he sat in one of the chairs. Naomi strapped his feet to the footrests. He lay back. He closed his eyes as Naomi pushed a long, sharp-looking plug into the socket at the back of his neck. Tank tapped some commands in, and a picture of Morpheus standing in a white void appeared on a screen. The image wore a long black leather coat and dark lenses. Morpheus himself looked asleep.

"He's waiting for you," Naomi said.

Jim sighed inwardly and submitted himself to the procedure. The moment the plug went in, there was -- nothing. No sight, no sound, no up, no down. But only for a moment. Then he was standing in front of Morpheus, in blank whiteness.

"Take a look at yourself," Morpheus said, waving a hand at him.

Jim looked down and saw that his clothes were different. He was wearing black pants, a grey t-shirt and a long-sleeved, light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The socket in his arm was gone. He felt behind his neck. The other socket was gone too.

"It's what we call residual self-image," Morpheus explained. "The mental projection of your digital self."

Maybe that would explain why Naomi never looks her age, Jim thought flippantly, then dismissed the thought. "Can't say I'm impressed with the decor," he said, gesturing at the whiteness.

"Let's see if we can't improve it," Morpheus said. He pulled out a mobile phone from an inside pocket of his jacket, pressed a few numbers, and said, "Tank! Give us a forest, with a stream."

Suddenly it was as if they'd been dropped into the middle of Cascade National Park. The sky was blue, a stream gurgled over rocks, the warm scent of pine wafted from the trees. Jim waved his arm at the tree in front of him, expecting it to go through it as if it were a hologram -- and thwacked it soundly against the unmoving trunk.

"Ow!" he exclaimed. "It's solid!"

"Real enough to stub your toe on," Morpheus said. "You're going to have a nasty bruise."

Jim could feel his arm throbbing. "But it's not real," he protested. He cautiously put his hand against the trunk, feeling rough bark under his hand, and a slight stickiness of pine resin.

"But it feels real," Morpheus said. "The mind tells the body what to believe. If you hurt your arm here, it will be hurt in the real world. If you die in the Matrix, you die outside."

"This is the Matrix?"

"No, this is the Construct, our loading program. It uses the same technology as the Matrix, but it doesn't have a fraction of its capacity. The Matrix is a cross-linked neurosimulation of the entire world as it was at the end of the 20th century."

Jim sat down on a rock, cradling his bruised arm. He heard the sound of birds and wildlife in the distance. He smelled the scents of warm earth and water, of pine and loam, fungi and decaying plants, and the sweetness of wild flowers. He stared at the pattern of light on the moving water, the ripples and refractions. It was almost... almost....

Someone was shaking him, and shouting. "Ellison!" Jim jerked back. It was Morpheus. He must have zoned out.

"Are you okay?"


"Do you have these fits often?" Morpheus asked.

"They aren't --" Jim broke off. "No." Jim stood up abruptly, turning his back to Morpheus. "This isn't real," he said. "There's something... missing."

"What's missing?" Morpheus asked.

Jim turned around again. "I don't know."

"Would you feel that way if you didn't have something to compare it to?"

"I don't know," Jim said again. He gestured at the surrounding forest. "I concede that this is pretty compelling, but that doesn't mean the rest of it is true."

"So what would it take to convince you?"

Jim tried to think of something they couldn't possibly fake. Something that would prove that all this talk of robots, AIs and the far future wasn't some sort of con. "Show me the sky," he said, and continued as Morpheus opened his mouth to speak. "Not in here. Show me the real sky. Take me to it."

Morpheus frowned. "That's much easier said than done."

Right. Here comes the snow job, the excuses. "Surely all you have to do is surface the sub --" Jim began.

"Sub?" Morpheus said. "This isn't a submarine, I thought you knew that. The Nebuchadnezzar is a hovercraft, it uses a kind of anti-gravity. We aren't under the water, we're underground, in a tunnel system, all that remains of the city above. The Nebuchadnezzar can't get to the surface."

"But there must be some way to the surface."

"Yes, on foot," Morpheus said. "In enemy territory, patrolled by Sentinels."

Jim tried to keep his face impassive at the familiar word. "And what are they?"

"Hunter-killer robots. We also call them squiddies because they look a bit like squids. We have only one weapon against them, an EMP pulse. Anyone on foot would be completely helpless. Being found by one of them is certain death. You still want to see the sky?"

Jim weighed up the prospect. Of course, there was really no choice. There was only one way to see if these terrorists were lying. Even if it was an elaborate set-up to kill him. "I have to know," Jim said.

Morpheus gazed at Jim for some moments, and then smiled. "All of us got here because we were passionately interested in the truth, in what was really going on, not accepting what we were being told. Who am I that I should deny anyone that quest?" He clapped his hand on Jim's shoulder. "You'll need a guide. If someone actually volunteers to take you, you can go."


Morpheus sent Naomi to fetch the others, while they sat on the dentist chairs to wait. "I'd better introduce you to the people you're asking to risk their lives," he said quietly to Jim. "Tank, you've met."

"What's this about?" Tank asked.

"When everyone's here," Morpheus answered.

The first to enter was a slim man with short-cropped blond hair and a sharp face. "Copper's awake, I see," he said, looking at Jim with a studiously bland expression.

Jim put a name to the voice almost before Morpheus introduced him. Dart.

"He grows on you," Morpheus said dryly.

Then a man and a woman came in together, the woman's hand on the man's arm. He was thin and pale, with a shock of straight black hair that never seemed to want to sit down tidily. She also had short black hair, and a look in her eyes that said he'd be on his butt if he so much as mentioned that she was beautiful.

"This is Neo," Morpheus said, indicating the man, "and Trinity. Meet Jim."

Jim nodded while trying not to goggle. It wasn't that Neo was hardly godlike, despite his reputation, it was that he recognised the name "Trinity" from his files -- but they hadn't said that she was a woman. No wonder she had attitude.

Next came another man, dark-haired with a sharp trimmed beard and bloodshot blue eyes. "I was asleep, you know," he grumbled, then his eyes lit on Jim and he smiled. "Hey, you're awake! Do you have a history of epilepsy?"

"No," Jim answered, trying to place the man's voice. He hadn't been in on the conversation he'd overheard earlier, yet it was still vaguely familiar.

Then Jim got another surprise. "This is Kay, our medic," Morpheus said. The eponymous "Kay" was a man, not a woman.

"Short for Tourniquet," Kay said. He pronounced it toor-ni-kay, not toor-ni-ket as many people did. Jim remembered being scolded by a paramedic once for pronouncing it "incorrectly". "Because I patch people up in emergencies," Kay continued. He gave a wry smile. "Funny, nobody seems to like the name except me."

Medic. The voice had been in his nightmares, attempting to soothe him.

"Now that we're all here --" Morpheus began.

"Except for Naomi and Gecko," Jim pointed out.

"They're keeping watch," Morpheus answered. He continued, "The reason I called this meeting is because Jim wants to go to the surface, and he'll need a guide. If any of you wish to volunteer, then he can go."

"Are you out of your bleedin' mind?" Dart burst out.

"Why do you want to go?" Trinity asked.

"Because I need to see for myself," Jim answered.

"Do you want to die?" Kay said quietly.

"I can't live a lie," Jim replied.

"You think this is a lie?" Neo said.

Jim knew he had to be diplomatic. "No offence, but I can't just take your word for it. Any of you. Not even Naomi."

Neo smiled. "Hey I can relate to that."

"But why would going to the surface convince you?" Trinity asked.

Jim decided to keep it simple. "I want to see the sky."

"Hey, if you want to commit suicide, that's not my problem," Dart interjected. "It's the fact that you'll take someone else with you that I've got a problem with."

"I'll take him," Neo said.

"Don't be stupid, Mister Chosen One," Dart said. "You can't dodge bullets in the real world."

"Good thing they don't use bullets," Neo quipped in return.

"No way," Dart said. "You're not going. I'll go."

"That's a sudden change of heart," Morpheus said.

"Not at all," Dart said. "I still think it's suicide, which means that Neo can't go. We can't risk losing him."

"I agree with Dart," Trinity said. "Neo can't go."

"Don't I get a say in this?" Neo said.

"No," Trinity said. "You don't." She whispered something in his ear that made Neo blush.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Morpheus asked Dart.

"Yes." Dart gave Jim a hard-edged stare. "Somebody's got to keep an eye on him."


They were tense as they approached the hatch. The Nebuchadnezzar had come as close to the surface as it could. The rest of the journey would have to be made on foot. The hatch door opened with a clang. Cold, dank air flowed in from outside. It was dim. Dart stepped across the threshold to the tunnel outside.

"Good luck," Naomi called out softly as Jim followed.

As soon as they were outside, the hatch closed. Light from the Nebuchadnezzar relieved the gloom, revealed the curve of the tunnel floor. It appeared to be made out of some kind of brick or stone, a grey cladding of concrete still showing in patches here and there. They didn't know exactly what the tunnels had been for, whether sewers or an underground transport system, but they were huge, on the human scale of things. They didn't go all the way to the surface.

Dart stepped away from the hovercraft, and Jim followed. When they were twenty paces or so from the Nebuchadnezzar, Jim turned to look at it.

Seeing it from the outside reinforced the impression of oldness and patchiness. Seen from farther away, one might not notice the scratches and scars of welding patches, but just see the ship as an organic whole, a grey beetle or legless crab with glowing circles attached to its sides like fluorescent ring-brooches. It wasn't designed to be aesthetically pleasing; no smooth, futuristic, aerodynamic shell made up its surface. It was all functional metal, pipes and lines and easily accessible maintenance ports. This was no passenger craft.

The repellers brightened; the Nebuchadnezzar rose and hovered a few yards above the floor of the tunnel. They were going farther back down the tunnel system, somewhere less exposed, to wait for their return.

"Well, come on then," Dart said, turning on a flashlight in the darkening tunnel. "Can't stand there gawking all day. Got more impressive sights to see."

Jim didn't bother turning on the flashlight they'd given him. There was more than enough light reflected from Dart's flashlight for a sentinel's eyes.

Dart led the way to a dark rectangle that broke the curve of the tunnel wall. Man-sized, it was probably an old serviceway. Whether it was or not, it hadn't seen service in many years. The floor was uneven with rubble, and in some places part of the ceiling had collapsed. The worst parts were the stairs, rusty metal in some spots, crumbling concrete in others. They proceeded in silence, with the occasional warning about a particularly difficult patch.

Jim's ears adjusted to the ambient noise level. He could hear the shifting of the earth around them, and tuned it out; the crunching of their feet against the floor; Dart breathing, heart pounding a little faster than usual. Jim suspected that Dart's elevated heart rate wasn't entirely from the exertion.

They stopped for a breather in a long gallery that had windows on the left side overlooking a huge empty space. The glass in the windows was long gone, though crumbs and shards of it still littered the floor in spots.

"What was this place?" Jim asked softly.

"God knows," Dart said. "Warehouse? Depot? It's dead and gone."

Jim thought he could hear a faint humming, thrumming, throbbing. An engine?

"Shh," Jim said. "Perhaps not so dead and gone."

"What are y'meanin'?

"Shh!" The throbbing was louder now, coming from somewhere in the distance, on the left, the same direction as the hangar or whatever it was, but farther away. An engine like the Nebuchadnezzar's. Jim wasn't going to take any chances. Whether or not what they'd told him was nonsense, he was obviously so far from the good ol' USA that whoever was running that engine wasn't likely to be friendly. "Get down! Kill the light! Something's coming!" Jim hissed. Jim suited actions to words and crouched down against the window-wall.

"I can't hear anything," Dart said.

"There's one thing worse than coppers, and that's Army behind enemy lines," Jim said, paraphrasing Dart's own words. Words that had never been meant for Jim's ears. "Get down!"

Dart gaped at him for a moment, then got down, switching the flashlight off. They waited in silence for a few tense minutes, while the throbbing got louder, until even Dart could hear it. Jim could tell when that moment came, because Dart's heart thundered in his chest, and the stink of fear rolled off him in waves.

The throbbing got louder, until it was just opposite them in the space on the other side. Jim could hear clicking, rustling, tinkling like a thousand metal scales rubbing against each other, like some techno-dragon out hunting its prey.

Neither of them dared move, or even breathe, let alone look to see what was hovering there. Because hovering it was, the engines were steady, not moving. A sudden light cast shadows through the window openings, shading everything a ghastly blue. Dart was like a pale ghost beside him.

And then Jim saw it, caught in a reflection of a splinter of glass tilted at just the right angle against the opposite wall. He glimpsed the source of the rustling noise -- no dragon-scales, but long, moving cables, like snakes on the head of a giant Medusa. As it moved slightly, he caught another snatch of sight, and realized, from the configuration, and its squid-like body, not ever made for passengers, that it must be a Sentinel. A robot. An A.I.

They waited, cold sweat dripping down their foreheads.

A rumble and boom echoed from somewhere farther away in the underground. The hovering engine moved again, away from their position. The light faded.

When Dart could no longer hear it, he moved to turn on his flashlight, and stopped when Jim clutched at his arm. When Jim could no longer hear it, he let go. "It's gone," he said quietly.

Dart thumbed on the flashlight. "It was gone five minutes ago," he said.

"No, it was listening," Jim said.

"How do you know?" Dart said.

"Good ears," Jim answered, standing up. "Let's get moving," he added. "We don't know if it will come back."

Dart gave Jim an odd look, but turned and led the way out of the gallery.

The incident had tuned Jim to a higher state of awareness. He thrummed like a bowstring, all his senses alert. He suspected he'd pay for it with a headache later, not to mention an increased risk of sensory spikes now, but a headache was better than being dead. If Blair had been here.... But he didn't want to think about that. He avoided looking directly at the circle of light cast by Dart's flashlight, wanting to keep his eyes adjusted to the dark. He could smell the cold, stale air; water and wet concrete; stone, dust and rust. He couldn't place it, but there seemed to be something missing. Some scent that he associated with dark, damp underground places, that he couldn't smell. He dug his nails into his hands, reminding himself that he didn't dare to risk zoning to find out what it was. He could hear the crunching of their feet, and the cracks and subsonic rumblings of the earth at it adjusted to changes of temperature and the disturbance of their passage.

They turned into another passage. He heard a crackling, popping sound that seemed vaguely familiar. When he saw a crack snake just before Dart's feet, he remembered where he'd heard the noise before -- the racetrack, just before it collapsed! He grabbed Dart and jerked him back.

Dart swore and struggled against him, and the flashlight spun out of his grasp. It fell onto he floor and a hole opened up before their feet. The concrete floor collapsed with a roar.

They tumbled backwards in their haste to get away from the collapse, and Dart swore again, but this time it wasn't at Jim.

The crumbled concrete settled below. Their breathing was harsh in the silence. The dropped flashlight shone weakly up from the hole, miraculously still working, but not for long.

Dart looked at Jim. "You saved my life," he said. Surprise and respect mingled in his voice.

"You still think I'm going to murder you all in your beds?" Jim said sarcastically. Jim was surprised at how much he resented Dart's earlier assertion that all soldiers were cold-blooded killers. Sure, he'd killed, in the line of duty, because that was what had to be done. But that wasn't what Dart had meant. To say that Jim would kill a child like Gecko, or someone like Naomi.... Never. It stung his pride. But why should he care what someone like Dart might think? Maybe because he wasn't quite so sure what someone like Dart was. Because he wasn't so sure of anything. Not at the moment.

Jim stood up, took his flashlight out of his equipment bag, and handed it to Dart, who had scrambled to his feet on his own. Dart raised an eyebrow at him.

"You need it, you're the guide," Jim said in answer to his unspoken question. His use of the word reminded him again of Blair, of how cheering his voice would be in this dark silence. And how it was probably safer for him where he was. Or was it?

Dart was studying the flashlight as if examining it for flaws, frowning in thought. Jim doubted it was the flashlight he was thinking about.

"Right," Dart said abruptly. "Let's get moving. We can't go that way," he said, pointing the flashlight in the direction of the hole that blocked the passage.

They turned around and made their way again through the passages lit only by the flashlight. Dart was again leading, Jim following. But soon Jim had an idea of where they were going, because he could feel the movement of air on his cheeks, smell something fresher than the stale air they'd been breathing before. He could sense it getting lighter, ever so slightly lighter, as if some illumination was filtering in from somewhere ahead.

Finally Dart led him into what might have been a basement. It was large and echoing, and Jim could see light coming from somewhere above. It was bright compared to the tunnels below, and had the softness of natural light, but it was dim, like an overcast day. They tiptoed across the space to a set of stairs that went up the side of the wall. The stairs were still intact for the most part, though the rail had gone. They went up into the inside of a building. Wind whistled through holes in the walls, and the front was missing, as if it had been made of something too fragile to last. Outside, Jim could see rubble and grey walls, but not much else.

Jim and Dart walked up to the front of the building. Jim stepped outside, and glanced around. Tumbled rocks and the remains of what might have been a street. There were no weeds. There were no trees. Just lichen, growing in undisturbed circles.

Then he looked up.

From horizon to horizon, the sky was boiling, a roiling mass of clouds stirred by the hand of a giant. But these were no white, puffy, cotton wool clouds: they were dirty grey, like sheep that had been dragged through the mud. Whenever a gap threatened to open in the cloudscape, lightning leaped from cloud to cloud, and it was solid once more. An eternal storm, that never rains.

Jim looked over at the horizon, and saw the jagged edges of mountains in the distance, thrusting up in parallel lines like volcanic plugs. Then his eyes adjusted, and he realized that they weren't mountains. They were much closer than that. They were ruins. Buildings. Scorched black by some devastation, profiled like a mountain range because not one of them, not one, retained its rectangular silhouette. They were all broken.

"Sweet Jesus," he whispered. It was real. It was all real.

All his life, he had rarely seen the full expanse of the sky, from bare horizon to bare horizon; and never since he'd come into the full extent of his senses. But seeing this, that what he had thought as far away was not so far, and feeling the cold breeze on his cheek, tasting the ozone in the air, hearing the distant rumble of the thunder in the sky, he had the sense of such vastness that it almost made him stagger, and he just knew in his bones, without being able to explain why, that what he was seeing was more real than the fantasy he'd grown up in.

And this sky, this dynamic veil against the sun, it was like nothing he'd ever seen before. It couldn't be natural. Which meant that the rest of it must be true too.


Verity (part 9)

The swirling cloudscape above was mesmerising, the more so because Jim didn't really want to think. This was like Rip Van Winkle, waking up and finding your world was dead and buried and you were cast adrift in a bleak and hostile future. Only this was worse. His world wasn't dead, it had never existed. And yet at the same time it did exist, in a twisted and half-alive sort of way. A sham, a trap... a cage. So what now? Jim thought.

"We go back to the rendezvous," Dart said, and Jim realized he must have spoken aloud. "It isn't safe here."

Jim wasn't going to object to that. It was ironic to think that the place he'd first wanted to escape from was now the only refuge in this howling wilderness. Jim turned back into the dimness of the ruined building, and followed Dart down the steps into the maze below.

What now? he thought, automatically keeping a step or two behind Dart as he led them back the way they had come. You've landed in the middle of a war. A war against something he didn't know how to fight. How do you fight something that isn't even alive? Not to mention the problem of destroying the enemy without killing all the people you were trying to save. If one considered the odds, one might as well not even start. But Army Rangers weren't ones to consider failure. He remembered the words from the Rangers' creed: Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor. He knew how to do that. He'd done it in Peru, though he was the lone survivor. There, the mission had been clear. But here, what was the mission? Wait and see. Wait and see.


Gecko stuck out her tongue in concentration as she speed-read the screen before her. The adults wouldn't tell her anything! Thought she was just a kid. Forgot that most of them had been around her age when they'd been freed from the Matrix. And maybe they thought that, because she'd never hacked maliciously, she couldn't crack computer systems. She'd show them. She'd find out what they were all scratching their collective heads over, why Jim Ellison was special.

She'd already read everything that was in the public record about him, she'd done that while he was still in recovery. Knew he was cop of the year, knew about the Army, about Peru.

She'd already figured out that the reason why Naomi knew Jim was because of Blair Sandburg, her son, though nobody had bothered to tell her that. Naomi just went by Naomi, as everyone who had been freed never used their old names, the signs of their old lives. Some just picked their first names, some made up new names. Hackers, like Neo and Trinity and Dart and Gecko herself, usually picked the handles they'd used on the net. Names that they'd chosen for themselves.

Gecko paused in her reading, noticing an anomaly. She'd already cracked the Cascade PD system and downloaded and skimmed everything she could find on Jim Ellison. When she saw references to Blair Sandburg, she grabbed everything she could find on him too. As a side trip, she cracked the Rainier University computers as well. And that was where she found the anomaly. According to the PD, Blair Sandburg was an anthropologist studying the closed culture of the police, and was working with Jim Ellison. According to the university, Blair Sandburg was doing his Anthropology PhD. on sentinels, tribal guardians with heightened senses. The police could certainly be considered to be the "tribal guardians" of the modern tribe, but could Ellison be one of these sentinels? In the old, narrow world inside the Matrix, such things would be dismissed as laughable, something out of science fiction. But in the real world, well, everything around her was proof that truth was stranger than fiction. Heightened senses were practically prosaic compared to killer robots and computer-simulated dream-worlds. Something had to make Jim Ellison different from the sleeping sheep around him. Could this be it?

But if she just blurted out her theory, they wouldn't believe her. Not a "kid". First, she had to find out more about sentinels. Then she was going to go through Ellison's cases in the past three years with a fine-toothed comb, looking for clues.

But she knew she was right.


The flashlight began to fail halfway back. Jim didn't notice until Dart stopped and banged the flashlight with his hand, trying to brighten the dim glow. Jim's sentinel eyesight had adjusted automatically to the dimmer light.

"Dammit, must have been damaged when we fell," Dart muttered.

They continued on, more slowly, as Dart tried to pick his way in what to him was near-darkness. Jim could tell by Dart's heartbeat that he was getting more and more nervous. They were too slow, they were taking too long.

And what if another one of those things comes back? Jim thought.

Dart hit the flashlight once more. It stayed dim. "Useless piece of junk!" he said, and made as if to throw it away.

Jim caught his arm. "Give it to me," he said. Screw it, Jim thought, we can't afford to be stumbling around in the dark. "Get behind and hold onto my belt."

"Don't tell me, you've got good eyes too?" Dart said sarcastically, but he did as Jim said.

"I won't tell you, then," Jim returned. "Just give me directions when I ask for them."

They continued on at a faster pace, Jim leading them, Dart holding on.

As they made their way back toward the rendezvous with the Nebuchadnezzar, Jim couldn't stop thinking. Should I tell them I'm a sentinel? All his fears said no. But another, practical part of his mind, argued, If you don't, you're a potential liability. You've already zoned out twice since you've been here... You can't pretend they won't believe you. You've already shown Dart enough to make him wonder. Which is more important, your damned pride, or staying alive? Staying alive, obviously. It's not as if Naomi probably hasn't told them already, he rationalised to himself.

But what about Blair? he thought. Can I really manage without him? He mentally shook his head. I'm going to have to. No way am I going to bring a civilian into a combat situation. Another part of his mind jeered Yeah? And who are Morpheus's people? And Naomi. Technically civilians. Yet they're here. He countered with They're volunteers. The reply, And you don't think Blair would volunteer? Considering that Naomi was here, he knew the answer to that question. I just don't want him to get hurt. The voice was as sarcastic as ever. And you believe that thinking you dead like Alex isn't going to hurt him? He responded At least he'd be safe. The answer wasn't comforting. Do you really know that, or are you just hoping? What about Smith and Harman?

To that question he had no answer.


"And now we return you to more classic hits from K-H-I-T K-Hit FM..."

The false sun shone down brightly, as it almost always did in LA. Blair sat in a lotus position on the grass in this little park, while kids played on the swings and monkey bars, and someone's radio played out guitars and three part harmony. A picture of placid American suburbia.

"What a fool believes, he sees. The wise man has the power, to reason away, what seems to be."

Let's hope that I'm wise, then, Blair thought. The bushes and trees nearby cast cooling shadows on his face. Blair took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. He'd managed to remember what he'd known as a child, and more. Because what he needed was more than child's games, more than mere amusement. The hardest lesson had been convincing his body that it wasn't starving. After all, if the world was an illusion and he was really asleep in the land of the Laleo, he didn't need food, right? Not to mention that fasting was a time-honoured way of focusing the soul. He'd grown a little thinner during that phase. And moved around a lot. It wasn't the Men Without Faces that really bothered him then -- after all, no matter where he went, they knew exactly where he was -- but the police, who took him for a druggie, a vagrant, a crime about to happen. After all, from the outside, what was the difference between a spaced-out drug addict and a long-haired hippie deep in meditation? But the harassment felt like a minor irritation compared to the need that consumed him, the need to learn more, the need to free himself.

Conquering his hunger was minor compared to what he was about to try. He could feel the bug in his gut. In his illusory gut. So, if his gut wasn't really there, all he had to do was....

He pressed his hand against his stomach. He took another calming breath, shut his eyes, then reached inside, grasping, pulling out....

He opened his eyes. There, in his hand, was a silvery shrimp-like creature. It was dead. He'd done it! He took another breath and focused inside, just to be sure.

The bug was still there.

A spike of fear shot through him. Had the bug multiplied somehow?

Blair reached into his gut again, and pulled out another bug, identical to the first. But the bug was still in his gut.


"What a fool believes, he sees." the radio blared out.

An inkling of the truth crossed Blair's mind. Was he seeing what he wanted to believe?

Blair tried again. Again the same result. Three dead bugs lay on the grass in front of him. None of them the real bug. Evidence of his wishful thinking. The irony of it struck him suddenly, and he started laughing. He'd been trying so hard to get rid of something, he'd created a solid illusion out of nothing. The potential was incredible, if he could do it again with something else. And at the same time, it was absolutely useless to him.

Because he still had that bug in his gut.

And he had a feeling that time was running out.


The glowing lights of the Nebuchadnezzar greeted them when they turned the last corner. Dart and Jim scrambled out of the serviceway into the large tunnel and up to the Nebuchadnezzar's hatch. It was opened by Naomi, and they'd barely gotten inside when the Nebuchadnezzar started moving.

Naomi looked at them with concern. "You were late. What happened? Are you okay?"

"Fine, Naomi," Jim said. "No broken bones."

"No, but my hair's gone white," Dart said, tugging at his white-blond hair.

Jim looked sideways at Dart. Was that supposed to be a joke, or not?

"You saw the sky?" Naomi asked Jim, as they walked along the corridor.

"Yes," Jim said. "I saw the sky." He pictured it again, in its roiling darkness. "It was like nothing I've ever seen." He realized that Naomi had led them to the Mess, and that it wasn't empty.

Naomi opened the door and stepped in.

"I'm convinced," Jim said behind her.

"I'm glad to hear it," Morpheus said as they entered. At the centre of the cramped room was a metal table with chairs around it. There was a long bench and sink along one side, and cupboards and contraptions hanging off the walls. Four people sat at the table besides Morpheus. Trinity, Neo, Kay and Gecko were eating the Nebuchadnezzar's staple food, which looked like runny porridge, and smelled faintly like someone had been growing yeast with a dash of Blair's algae shake.

Gecko silently handed Jim a portion in a metal container more like camping equipment than a bowl, and a similarly utilitarian spoon. "Thanks," he said, and sat down. He took a cautious taste. It was like watered-down cream-of-chicken soup with mushy rice, with a metallic undertone like something that had been stored in a can for too long. Well, at least it's bland.

"So what happened?" Morpheus asked. "What delayed you?"

"Y'knew it was a risk before we went," Dart said as he poured himself a serving from the dispenser. "We almost didn't get there, let alone back. A Squiddy -- a Sentinel -- nearly spotted us."

"How did you manage to avoid it?" Neo asked.

"Ellison heard it coming," Dart said, glancing at Jim before sitting down. "We lost one torch in a rockfall, and the other one was damaged, failed on the way back. But besides having ears like a bat, he also has eyes like a cat. Wouldn't've made it back without 'im."

"So you are a sentinel!" two voices exclaimed at the same time. Gecko and Naomi stared at each other.

"How did you know?" Naomi asked Gecko.

"I did some research," Gecko said, sticking out her chin. "I'm not stupid."

"No one said you were, sweetie," Naomi said.

"Don't call me sweetie!" Gecko snapped.

"Don't worry, she calls Blair sweetie all the time." Jim smiled, temporarily distracted from his own problems. Well, at least I won't have to figure out how to tell them, he thought. But he wished he could have delayed it a little.

"Will someone tell me what you are talking about?" Morpheus's voice cut across the conversation. "I assume you aren't saying that he's an A.I.?"

"No, no, of course not!" Naomi said.

"A sentinel is someone with enhanced senses," Gecko said. "All five of them."

"It's what Blair was doing his thesis on," Naomi explained.

"The potential to be a sentinel is genetic, but it usually takes a time of isolation to bring out the enhanced senses," Gecko continued. "Was it Peru?" she asked Jim.

He nodded, concentrating on an apparently friendly face. He didn't really want to see how the others were reacting to his admission that he was a freak. Though he was also a bit disconcerted by how much Gecko appeared to know. Naomi was one thing, but how had Gecko known what to look for? In so short a time? It was a little late to worry about it now. "I suppressed them when I got back home. But they came out again while I was working on a case. Blair taught me how to control them." He looked down at his tin bowl, taking another spoonful of the nutrient porridge.

"All five of your senses are enhanced?" Kay asked eagerly.

Oh god, Jim thought, he'll be wanting to dissect me next.

"What exactly does that mean, 'enhanced'? Trinity asked. She sounded curious, and a little sceptical.

He looked up at her, realizing he couldn't stare at his food forever.

"It means he can see in the dark, for one," Dart said.

"Not exactly," Jim said. He didn't want to be thought of as some kind of superman either. "I still need a little light."

Dart nodded to himself. "That's why you didn't want me to throw away the torch," he said.

Jim nodded.

"How'd you know the floor was goin'?" Dart asked. "See it?"

"I heard it before I saw it," Jim said.

"What else can you do?" Neo asked, leaning forward and staring at him. It wasn't meant for intimidation, but interest. His eyes were alight with curiosity, but his mouth quirked with a kind of wry sympathy. He believes me, Jim realized. And he understands what it's like to be... different.

"Distinguish things by touch," he answered. "Read the impressions on a writing pad, for example. Track things by scent," he continued. "If it's something distinctive, like cigars -- or burning sage." He glanced at Naomi and half-smiled. "I think I could track Naomi anywhere."

"Once you stopped sneezing," she teased back. "You're still allergic to sage."

"And a lot of other things," he said.

"The price of being sensitive?" Neo asked.

"Not the only price," Gecko said. "There's the risk of overload --"

"And zone-outs are still a problem," Naomi added.

"I suspect they always will be," Jim said with a sigh. "That's why I need a Guide."

"Zone-outs?" Kay said, while at the same time, Trinity said, "A Guide?"

"A zone-out is when a sentinel gets so caught up in the input from one sense, he stops responding to anything else," Gecko said.

"And you didn't tell me?" Kay rounded on Naomi and Gecko. "What the hell did you think you were doing? Risking Jim's life, not to mention wasting my time -- for what?"

Gecko blushed. "I thought you wouldn't believe me," she said in a tiny voice.

Naomi bristled. "Don't pick on her. I didn't say anything because it wasn't my place to betray a confidence."

"A confidence?" Kay turned to Jim, and raised one eyebrow. "And you wanted to keep it secret because...?"

Jim steeled his jaw. "What do you think?"

Kay sighed. "Your health is more important than your damned pride."

Jim didn't know what to say to that.

Morpheus asked, "Have you experienced any of these zone-outs since you came on board?"

"Two," Jim admitted, "that I know of. One during your EMP pulse, one when you took me into the Construct."

"Ah," Morpheus said, unsurprised. "So it wasn't a fit at all."

"As I said at the time," Jim returned.

"No wonder your brain impulses were so unusual," Kay muttered. He added, "And a Guide is...?"

"Blair was my Guide," Jim said. "He helped me focus, helped prevent zone-outs, helped bring me out of them, watched my back."

"So you need a guide," Morpheus said.

"That's easily solved," Naomi said. "We bring Blair out."

"No," Jim said. "It's too dangerous here."

"Here? It isn't safe for him there either!" Naomi said. "Don't you know the Agents were watching both of you?"

"They were?" Gecko said. Jim could hear the sudden pounding of her heart. And she wasn't the only one.

"Harman and Smith were Agents?" Jim asked, but it was a rhetorical question. "But they were only interested in Alex -- and probably me."

"They were watching Blair too," Naomi said. "After you woke up."

"But he's not a sentinel," Jim said.

"No, but he's the Guide to a sentinel," Naomi said, nose to nose with Jim. "You need him."

"Then it's a trap," Morpheus said. "They're expecting you to come back."

"A bug, do you think?" Neo said, with a slight involuntary shudder. Trinity put a hand on Neo's shoulder.

"Probably," Morpheus said.

"We can get it out," Neo said.

Trinity frowned. "How long has Blair been missing?" she asked Naomi.

"Since two days after Jim woke up," Naomi said.

"It's too late, then," Trinity said.

"What do you mean, too late?" Jim said. "What kind of a bug is this?"

"It's like a cross between a wiretap and a computer virus," Dart said.

"It's an artificial lifeform that burrows into the victim's body," Kay said. "The A.I.'s can use it to track someone, tap into everything they're doing. Track what they connect to."

"But they gave one to me," Neo said. "You got it out. Why can't you do the same with Blair?"

"Because it's been in him too long," Trinity said. "Yours was only in for a matter of hours. Still near the surface, we could zap it. If they got one into him before he vamoosed, it will be wrapped around his spinal cord by now. His virtual spinal cord, yes, but digging it out would still kill him."

"We cannot risk bringing in someone who's been tapped," Morpheus said. "If your friend has a bug in him, it would lead the Agents straight to us, both in the Matrix and in the real world."

"And if we leave him there, what then?" Jim asked.

"It could kill him," Kay said. "That's why they don't use the bugs all the time. It disrupts the system too much. Monstrous stuff."

"So what you're saying is that if we do something, my partner will die, and if we do nothing, my partner may die anyway," Jim said. "That is completely unacceptable! You don't even know that he has a bug at all!"

"It may be too risky even to find out," Morpheus said.

"I am not going to leave Blair in danger!"

"It isn't your choice," Morpheus said, standing up.

"Morpheus! A word," Naomi said, jumping to her feet.

Morpheus inclined his head. "Naomi."

They stepped outside the room and shut the door. But Jim could still hear them.

"You have to let Jim do this," Naomi said.

"I know Blair is your son, and I'm very sorry --" Morpheus began.

Naomi interrupted him. "That has nothing to do with it! You have to let them do this, because Jim and Blair are the Two. I know they are."

"You thought that Blair was the One," Morpheus said dryly.

"I was mistaken," Naomi said.

"And maybe you're mistaken again," Morpheus said.

"Do you know what the Oracle said to me about Blair?" Naomi said. "I wanted to take him with me when I left. People thought it was strange that I didn't. But she said, he needs to find the other half of his soul. And he has. That other half is Jim. They are the Two."

"I'm sorry, Naomi, but what you're asking is impossible."

"So was Neo rescuing you."

There was a pause. "And how could you get him out if nobody knows where he is?"

"I know where his body is," Naomi said.

"What? How did you find that out?"

"I made sure of it before I left," Naomi said. "I wasn't going to leave him without knowing that he could follow me some day. I can take the Nebuchadnezzar right there."

"So," Morpheus said. "The task is only half as impossible."

There was another pause.

"I'll decide tomorrow," he said. Jim could hear his footsteps retreating down the corridor.

Naomi took a slow breath. "I am letting this go," she murmured. "I am letting this go."

Jim only wished it were that easy.


Verity (part 10)

Jim silently groaned as the lights blinked on for another day. He ached from the fall, and his sense-use had given him the expected headache which made it hard to sleep. Though it would have been hard to sleep anyway, with everything that had happened, learning that Everything You Know Is Wrong. When he had slept, he'd had nightmares. Nightmares about the world melting around him, about the churning sky, about ground that gave way under his feet and trees that vanished when he touched them, but mostly about Blair, dying.

He sat up as someone outside turned the wheel of the door. It was Tank.

"Sleep well?" Tank asked.

"Not really," Jim said.

"You will tonight," Tank said.

"What's happening?"

"Your training."

"Training in what?" Jim remembered wondering how Morpheus managed to turn geeks into a militia. Was he about to find out?

Tank's eyes glinted with a smile. "In everything."

Well, you don't think small, do you? Jim hadn't really noticed it before, but he realized that Tank didn't have the sockets that everyone else here had. "You weren't born in the Matrix?" Jim asked as he followed Tank down the corridor.

"I was born free, in Zion," Tank said.

"What's Zion, besides home?" Jim remembered they'd mentioned sending him to Zion if he'd turned out to be insane. Obviously it wasn't just an insane asylum.

"The last free human city," Tank said.

Jim sneezed. Naomi must be up ahead. Obviously she'd felt the need for some heavy-duty "cleansing" after what had happened with Morpheus the day before. They entered the computer area, and sure enough, Naomi was there.

Tank gestured at the dentist chairs in a circle. "Pick a chair, any chair."

Jim was puzzled for a moment, and then comprehension dawned. Of course. With the ultimate in simulation equipment, they're planning on putting me through some training simulations. But his skin crawled at the thought of submitting himself to the illusion.

Naomi touched his shoulder. "You fear what you don't understand," Naomi whispered. "Let understanding drive away your fear."

Jim had his doubts that any number of simulations would make him more comfortable with the thought of a socket stuck into his brain, but he knew he had to do it. He suspected that part of Morpheus's decision about whether they go after Blair would depend on how well Jim took in their training. He allowed Naomi to strap him in to a chair, and held himself still when she hooked up the connection. It obviously wasn't activated yet, because he was still here and aware of his surroundings.

Naomi handed something -- more than one something -- to Tank. Each one looked a bit like a floppy disk case with a transparent centre with gold circuitry embedded inside. "Gecko and I made these up," she said to Tank. "Custom. With his background, he'll need a different course."

Well, yeah, not much point in starting me off on Basic Training, Jim thought.

"Tested?" Tank asked.

"Absolutely," Naomi nodded.

"Okay, then," Tank said, and slotted the first disk into the console in front of him. Jim couldn't see quite what he was doing, but he seemed to be pressing buttons and checking something.

"Ready?" Tank asked him.

"Whatever," Jim said, and braced himself, waiting for something to happen, for his surroundings to change. They didn't. A moment later he realized something was happening. It was like his brain was on fire, a cool fire of knowledge. He was... knowing, remembering things he'd never been taught. The history of computing; from Charles Babbage to Bill Gates, from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper, a parade of names and contributions flitted through his brain: Kernighan, Wall, Dijkstra, Berners-Lee... pioneers of the electronic frontier. The Turing test for A.I. and how it was passed. Programming. Security. Methods. And another branch, human physiology, and the circuitry of the brain; enough to put a doctor to shame. Some lore of the Matrix. He knew if a black cat crossed his path twice, it really was bad luck -- a Deja-Vu, a glitch in the Matrix, a sign that something had been changed. There were meditation techniques. And more.

He gasped and shut his eyes, feeling almost dizzy.

"You okay?" Naomi asked him quietly.

"I thought it was going to be a simulation," Jim said.

"That'll be later," Naomi answered.

Jim took a deep, cleansing breath through his nose, and realized he was already putting into practice the relaxation techniques that had been uploaded into his brain. "This would make a hell of a brainwashing technique," he muttered.

"It already is," Naomi said. "It brainwashed the entire human race."

"Point taken," Jim said.

"You ready for more?" Tank said.

Jim flexed his fingers and then relaxed. "Go for it," he said.

What followed was an alternation of martial arts and things that might come under the general heading of "meditation"; Tai Chi, body awareness, kick-boxing, bio-feedback techniques, Kung Fu, self-trancing -- on and on for hours. Naomi and Tank discussed things, soft-voiced, with each other, looking at the screens and at him, but he ignored them, trying to channel the flood of knowledge, and reorient himself in the breaks between disks. He told himself it was like Blair teaching him sentinel techniques -- which he often just picked up on the second try -- only faster. Unfortunately this was without Blair. But to rescue Blair he had to get through this. So he was damned if he wasn't going to succeed. He shut his eyes and forced himself to relax as the barrage continued.

"How do you feel?"

He opened his eyes. It was Morpheus. "Like I've been force-fed the Tao of Hand-to-hand," Jim said.

"You have," Morpheus said. "Let's see how you put it into practice."


The simulation was a large, traditional dojo, with woven mats on the floor, wooden beams holding up a gallery all around, and high windows letting in the light. They both wore loose kimonos and pants; Morpheus in brown, Jim in white.

"You are not in the army," Morpheus said. "You have to forget the limitations that you learnt there. This is a computer simulation. It has rules, but unlike the laws of physics, these rules can be bent, sometimes even broken. The only stamina you have to consider is mental."

Jim nodded.

"Now, hit me."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "Just hit you?"

Morpheus smiled. "We'll start small."

They bowed to each other in the traditional manner, and then the sparring began. But no matter what Jim did, he couldn't hit Morpheus. After Morpheus turned one attack into a flip that landed Jim on his back on the floor, Morpheus said, "Stop thinking like an Army Ranger! Do you think the reason why I'm faster has got anything to do with my muscles?"

Jim realized what Morpheus was getting at. His response should only be limited by the reaction time of his brain, his strength by what he could imagine his strength to be.

He thought he heard Naomi say, somewhere in the far-off reality, You're a sentinel, Jim. Start behaving like one. Use your abilities.

Jim pulled himself to his feet, and narrowed his attention on Morpheus; the sound of his heartbeat, the look in his eyes, the movement of his muscles. This isn't real, Jim thought. This is a wonderland. Bend the rules.

It was as if Morpheus telegraphed his every move before he made it. He still didn't manage to hit Morpheus, but neither did Morpheus manage to hit him. He leaped, he dodged, he blocked. Jim wasn't aware of how fast he was going; he was only aware of the moves in the dance. He feinted, caught Morpheus, and threw him to the ground. He waited for Morpheus to get up.

Morpheus did, but he was smiling. "Good," he said. "You anticipated my moves and matched my speed. But you can be faster than that."

"Are you trying to get me to kill you?" Jim said.

"I'm trying to free your mind," Morpheus said. "Tank!" he called out. "Load the jump program."

The dojo vanished. They were in mid-air, above a city, which rushed up toward them, though there was no wind. And they were on the top of a skyscraper, just like that. The sun shone in a haze, and a breeze blew. There was another building across from them, the width of a main street away.

"You have to let it all go, Jim. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind." He ran to the edge of the building, leaped high into the air across the huge gap between buildings, and landed, on his feet, on the other side. Jim could see and hear the concrete crack with the force of his landing.

The inference was obvious. Jim was supposed to do the same thing. "This isn't real," Jim said. He knew that, knew it in his bones. But it seemed real. He couldn't help thinking of Blair's fear of heights. Free my mind.

He ran to the edge, and took a leap into space. He hung there a moment, like the Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. Then he was falling, wind whistling past his ears.

Shit! Sheer terror grabbed hold of him. The next moment he was gasping, hands clutching the arms of his chair, blinking at the dim light of the Nebuchadnezzar's cyber room.

"Hey! I didn't --" Tank checked his console and stared at Jim. "You shouldn't be able to do that!"

"Do what?"

He touched his headset, obviously listening. "No, Morpheus he's okay. He disengaged the interface by himself." He glanced at Jim. "Yes, I know it's impossible, but he did it anyway."

Naomi was staring at him. Then she smiled. "I was right," she murmured.

"Naomi, don't get your hopes up," Jim said to her. "I'm just a man."

"No, you're not just a man," she said. "You're a sentinel."


The jungle. The humidity bathed his body in sweat. The dappled sunlight cooled his eyes. He was wearing a black and crimson jumpsuit, and it itched. He stumbled through the trees, nearly tripping over roots, making enough noise to wake the dead. Which he very soon might be if this kept on. The vines whipped into his face, but he had no machete to clear the way, no crossbow to render silent death, no woodcraft. All gone.

He broke through into a clearing, and saw the vine-covered temple. "Incacha! Incacha! Help me!"

No answer.

He heard a noise from out in the jungle, a snapping twig, and whirled around to face the threat.


"Incacha isn't here," said a quiet voice behind him.

He whirled again. Blair stood on the dais in front of the temple, wearing his old flannel shirt, a t-shirt, and jeans.

"Sandburg, what's wrong with me?" He waved at the getup he was wearing, which he suddenly realized was a uniform out of Star Trek.

"You think you are in the future," Blair said. "You are afraid. That is foolish. There is no future. There is no past. There is only now. And Now is always changing, it is never the same."

"But this is different," Jim protested.

"It is bigger," Blair said. "It is not different. Or no more different than crashing in the jungle and assimilating into a tribe whose level of technology was thousands of years apart from what you were used to. But you managed."

"But there's no going back," Jim said.

"No," Blair agreed. "There never is. You can never go back to the past."

The Blair-who-was-not-Blair straightened, and seemed to loom over him, even though he stayed exactly the same height.

"Who are you?"

"James Ellison."

"Who are you?"

"The sentinel."

"Who are you?"


"What do you need?"


"Then find him." The faux-Blair smiled. "As he is your guide, so you are his."

"What do you m--?" But Jim was awake, the jungle vanished, his question unanswered. The cold, hard reality of the Nebuchadnezzar faced him, and a new day.


The red light turned to green. Morpheus and Jim crossed the street, in the face of a flood of people coming the other way.

"The Matrix is a system," Morpheus said. "That system is our enemy."

The sidewalk was crowded, like a rush of lemmings in black suits and black dresses. He and Morpheus were the only ones going against the tide.

"When you're inside, you look around, what do you see?" Morpheus said. "Businessmen, carpenters, lawyers, teachers...."

A nun in a black habit frowned at them, or perhaps she was frowning at the group of sailors in white, just in front of her.

"The very minds of the people we are trying to save."

The brown-stone buildings loomed, as Jim struggled to keep only one step behind Morpheus.

"But until we do," Morpheus continued, "these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy."

A uniformed cop in mirrored sunglasses looked up as he was writing a ticket. How could a cop be an enemy?

"You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged."

They stepped past some construction into a square with a large fountain pouring water over the edge of an upper bowl into a lower one.

"And many of them are so inured, so dependent on the system," Morpheus continued, as a woman, a blond, wearing red, a bright contrast to the sea of black and white, smiled at Jim. "That they will fight to protect it."

Jim turned his head to watch her go past.

"Are you listening to me, or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?"

"I --"

He smelled the gun oil before he felt the whisper of air behind him. The next moment he dived and rolled out of the way. He looked up. The woman in the red dress was gone. In her place was Agent Smith.

"Freeze it!" Morpheus called out. Everything froze in place, as if it were some Star Trek holodeck frieze. "I'm impressed. Most people get caught out. Even Neo, the first time."

"This is not the Matrix, I take it," Jim said, getting up.

"It's another training program designed to teach you one thing: If you are not one of us, you are one of them."

Jim stared at the frozen image of Agent Smith. "Blair called them the Men Without Faces, the guards of the prison. He said they stole people's faces."

"That's one way of putting it," Morpheus said. "They are sentient programs that can move in and out of any software still hardwired to their system. That means that anyone we haven't unplugged is potentially an Agent. Inside the Matrix, they are everyone, and no one."

"If that's the case, why bother using bugs?" Jim asked.

"They have limitations," Morpheus said. "They are built on a system based on rules. Rules that they cannot break. You can." Morpheus looked at Jim. "I won't belittle the danger. Before Neo, everyone who went up against an Agent died. But you won't."

Morpheus plucked the gun out of the frozen hand of the Agent, and pointed it at Jim.

"You expect me to dodge bullets, like Mister Miracle Worker Neo?"

"If you choose to," Morpheus said. "But for now, I expect you to escape."

Morpheus fired the gun straight at him. And Jim was back in the dentist's chair on the Nebuchadnezzar, heart pounding in reaction.

A minute later, Morpheus stood by his chair.

"You shot me!" Jim growled.

Morpheus smiled calmly. "I motivated you," he said. "I knew you could do it again."

"Very funny," Jim snarled.

"I am not here to amuse you. I am trying to train you. To free your mind," Morpheus said. "If it takes fear to make you use that unique talent, I'll use fear. But you should be able to do it without that kind of motivation. I suggest you practice."

"Practice?" Jim echoed.

"Because tomorrow you're going to see the Oracle."


Verity (part 11)

The sun shone down on the beach, like a molten ball in the sky, hazed by smoke. Mountains loomed through the smog-veil in the distance. The waves tumbled on the shore, tossing the salt spray and filling Jim's nose with the scent of fish and seaweed and salt. There were people on the beach, running, lying in the sun, playing beach volleyball, kids screaming in excitement. Yet the sound of the people was strangely muted.

"Jim?" The voice was quiet, but it drowned out all the other sounds.

"Sandburg." Jim turned and saw his friend, standing barefoot in the sand. He was thin, but what was more disturbing, he was translucent, as if he were fading away to nothing. As if he were a ghost. "Sandburg? What's happened? What's the matter?"

Blair scowled. "What's the matter? I can't get it out, that's what's the matter! I've tried and I've tried."

"Don't give up, Chief."

Blair ignored him; he looked out at the ocean. "Don't you think the beach is the best place? The border between land and sea, between the known and the unknown." The breeze lifted his curly hair. "Between death and life."

"Blair, don't talk like that."

Blue eyes met his own. "I guess I just wanted to say good-bye."

"Blair!" Jim half sat up in his cold, bare cabin on the Nebuchadnezzar. He had to rescue Blair. Today, they were going to the Oracle. Naomi had mentioned telling Blair to go to the Oracle. If he had, then maybe he was there. Or, at least, she might know where he had gone.


"It's amazing," Jim said. They were riding in a limousine, Morpheus driving, Jim and Neo in the back. The scenery drifted past, people and buildings, the image of mundanity. They were inside the Matrix. It was like the Construct, only... thicker. Like a smothering blanket. Jim could almost see the edges of things, where they were pasted together, like something niggling at the corner of his eye.

"What's amazing? Being back?" Neo asked.

"How real it all seems." Jim touched the plastic siding on the inside of the limousine door. "I feel as if... it's all hollow. More empty than the space inside an atom."

Neo's eyes widened, just a little. "You feel the Matrix? You feel it."

"I thought you did too," Jim said. "Isn't that why you're the One?"

"I see it," Neo said.

"You see it as what?"

"I've never been able to explain what it looks like to me. It just is," Neo said.

"No, it isn't," Jim said. "It seems."

"We're there," Morpheus announced, stopping the car. "Neo, you stay here." They got out, and Morpheus led Jim into a run-down apartment building, with plastic seats in the hall in front of the elevators, and graffiti on the walls. They entered the elevator and Morpheus pressed one of the buttons. Jim refrained from commenting on their surroundings.

"Have you decided yet?" Jim asked.

"Have I decided what?"

"Whether to let us go and rescue Blair."

"I haven't heard a viable plan yet," Morpheus said. "You don't even know where he is, let alone how he is."

"I plan to ask the Oracle."

"I didn't think you believed."

"I don't," Jim said. Oh yeah? And how many dreams and visions have you had, huh? a part of his mind quipped. That's different, he told himself. "She's the last known contact with Blair," Jim said. "She may know where he's gone." It wasn't until he spoke the words that he realized that his hope of finding Blair here had died a silent death. He knew that Blair wasn't here. There was no scent of him in the elevator, not the faintest trace, though there were plenty of other smells. And he doubted very much that Blair would have avoided the elevator, if he had been here. But that was only the logic after the fact. He knew Blair wasn't here.

"You're thinking like a cop," Morpheus said. "That could get you killed."

"Only if I let myself be," Jim said.

The elevator doors dinged open. Morpheus led the way down the dingy hallway and stopped at a door. He gestured at Jim to open the door, but Jim could hear footsteps on the other side, and decided to knock. The door opened before he could do more than raise his fist.

A black woman in a long white dress, her hair caught up in a bundle of many tiny braids, smiled at them. "Welcome, Morpheus, Jim. The Oracle is expecting you. Come in."

They followed her inside. The short hallway had a framed painting and a padded wooden chair. "Morpheus, make yourself at home. Jim, follow me."

She led Jim into what appeared to be a fairly conventional living room, with bookshelves, overstuffed furniture, and a television murmuring in the background. The occupants were anything but conventional. They were all children, of various ages and races, dressed in pale colors, and playing the most unusual... games. A black boy with wildly fuzzy hair was reading a book in Chinese while sitting cross-legged, floating two inches above the floor. A Caucasian boy with a shaved head was playing invisible tug-of-war with an Asian girl. There was no rope, just a handkerchief moving back and forth. Right by his feet was a little girl with long, dark, curly hair, playing mud-pies with the floor.

"Wait here," the black woman said, but Jim hardly heard it, he was so taken with what was going on.

He squatted down by the girl. Her curly locks reminded him painfully of Blair.

She looked up at him and smiled. "Do you want to play?" She scooped up a bit of the floor in her hand as if it were clay, and plopped it onto the pile she was making. "It isn't really there," she said conspiratorially. "I'm just making believe."

No, it isn't really there, is it? Jim put his hand in the floor, and pulled up a sloppy wet bunch of wood and carpet and concrete, and watched it trickle though his hands like sand, a cascade of coloured pixels in this image of a room.

The girl giggled.

Jim smiled.

"The Oracle will see you now," the woman said behind Jim.

Jim suppressed his irritation at the interruption. After all, that was what he was here for. The woman led him to the kitchen, where the smell of baking filled his nose -- something chocolate. A black woman with short curly hair was turning out a cake onto a cooling rack. "Just a moment," she said. The cake was dark brown, with a dusting of flour. There was no underlying charred smell in the room; whatever she was, she wasn't in the habit of burning things; though a tang of nicotine in the air said that she was a smoker.

She turned around and smiled at him. "I'm not what you were expecting, am I?"

"I wasn't expecting anything," Jim said. He hadn't really thought about it. If she could answer the one question he was burning to ask, he didn't really care if she were a snake-oil salesman or had a genuine gift, or was like Charlie Spring, who was a bit of both. He asked. "Did Blair come to see you? Do you know where he is?"

"You don't need me to tell you where Blair is," she answered. "You should listen to your dreams."

"My dreams?" he echoed, not sure whether to dismiss it as New Age crap, or whether to take her seriously. Blair, of course, would have taken her seriously, but he was into that sort of thing.

"Would you feel more inclined to listen if this were a jungle and I was dressed as a shaman?"

What? How did she know? Did Blair--?

"Did Blair tell me about that? No." She stepped right up to him. "Of course, I could be lying, but then, you would be able to tell, wouldn't you?" She offered him her hand, palm upward. "Am I lying?"

He took her hand. It was warm, her pulse steady. "No," he said. "But --"

She shook her head. "No buts," she interrupted. "You have gifts, rare and precious gifts, but you have to trust them." She grasped his hand tightly. Her eyes were pools of sadness. "Blair's life depends on it."

"He's bugged," Jim said.

"Yes," she said. "But you already knew that."

He let go of her hand and clenched his fists by his sides, as if he were trying not to hit something. "I 'know' this, I 'know' that!" he snapped. "But what I don't know is how to save Blair!"

"You can't save Blair," she said.

Jim gaped at her.

Before he could say anything, she continued, "And he can't save himself. Only by both of you working together will Blair have a chance."

"Working together?" Jim said. "How?"

"Your strength is in perception. His is in imagination."

"So?" I already know that. Damn -- is she right? Do I already have the answer?

"You have half the answer," she said. "Blair has the other half."

Jim sighed. "Why must you people always be so damned cryptic?"

She smiled and took his hand. "Because signposts are easier to remember than treatises," she said. "The future is made up of choices; the result of this decision and that decision, piled up on top of each other. You make your own tomorrow by what you choose today. And by what you chose in the past. And by what other people choose. Some things are inevitable, others aren't. I'm just pointing the way. You're the one who has to walk along it."

Any moment now, she's going to ask me what I fear, Jim thought wryly.

"You're a good man, Jim," she said. "Trust yourself. Trust Blair."

"I do trust Blair."

"Good. One last thing." She whispered something that was too low for anyone but a sentinel to hear.

"I don't understand," he said.

"You will," she said. "In time, you will."


Morpheus held up his hand to silence Jim. "What she said was for you alone. Don't tell me."

The journey back to the rendezvous point was mostly silent, as Jim cogitated over what the Oracle had said, and thought over his dreams.

When they got out of the car, Jim spoke. "Morpheus," he said. "I have a plan to rescue Blair, but I have to talk to Naomi first."


"What do you see?" Naomi asked softly.

Jim sat cross-legged on his bunk, eyes shut, breathing slow and even. "The beach... people... palm trees, the long skinny kind you get in LA and Hawaii. There's a man making a sand-sculpture of a crayfish -- Blair!"

"That's good. Now, don't look at Blair, look around you. What else do you see?"

"Behind the beach, grass, lawns, and smooth paths through the lawns, curving...."

"What else do you see?"

"A boardwalk... stalls, a juggler, music... buildings behind... the beach... mountains in the distance... Blair, Blair is -- no!" Jim opened his eyes with a snap.

"It's okay Jim," Naomi touched his shoulders. "I think I know where it is: Venice Beach. Blair loved it when he was a child, all the people. It's not surprising he might go back there."

"Then that's where I'll go," Jim said.


"I'm coming with you," Neo announced as Jim was being strapped into his chair.

"Morpheus didn't mention it," Tank said.

"Last-minute change of plan," Neo said, getting into a chair and not looking at Tank.

Jim looked at Neo sharply, and wondered why he was lying.

"Jim needs someone to watch his back," Neo continued. That wasn't a lie. Jim decided to accept the help in the spirit in which it was offered.

"Set us down as near Venice Beach as you can," Jim said.

Tank consulted his screen, and said, "There's a place just off Strongs Drive."

A moment later, he and Neo stood inside a Los Angeles hotel room, sun streaming in the window, a bare wooden table in the centre of the room, with an old-fashioned dial-telephone on it, ringing.

Neo picked up the handset. "We're in," he said.

They left the room together, went down to the end of the hall and out the fire escape. In the alley outside, they stopped to get their bearings. And don sunglasses.

"Sea's that way." Jim pointed, detecting the smell of salt in the air. As they turned in the direction he'd indicated, he asked, "Why did you defy Morpheus and come with me?"

Neo turned startled eyes on Jim. "You heard our argument, didn't you?"

"Some. It is a trap, you know. I have to do this; you don't. Why are you?"

"Because, once, I had to do something that they all said was impossible. But I knew I could do it. If you say you can do this, you deserve the chance."


They continued walking shoreward, past parked cars and moving cars, breathing their fumes, past people staring down at the sidewalk, and others strolling and looking around at the buildings and awnings and murals. The street finally ended in an open area, a boardwalk with stalls, cafes, lawns and beach, just as Jim remembered from his dream.

And lots and lots of people.

"How are you going to find him in all this?" Neo asked.

"I'll find him," Jim said. "If I zone out, slap me." He extended his senses -- smell, sight, hearing -- seeking the essence of Blair: his scent, his voice, his self. Somewhere, Blair was there. He knew it.

He lost all track of time, filtering out, seeking, casting out....

"Oh, excuse me!"

It was Blair's voice, above the crowd, above the seagulls and the waves, it was him. Jim piggybacked his sight to his sound, and caught sight of the back of a curly head, farther down the boardwalk, talking to a woman.

"I wasn't looking where I was going. So sorry."

"Found him," Jim muttered to Neo, and strode quickly along the boardwalk, Neo a pace or two behind him. As they got closer, Jim was more and more certain it was really Blair -- his voice, his gestures -- even though Jim couldn't see his face.

"Sandburg!" Jim called out.

The curly head snapped around. Blue eyes widened in recognition, jaw dropped.

Blair turned and ran.


Verity (part 12)

"Dammit, you spooked him!" Jim said to Neo, and took off running after the rapidly retreating Blair. Blair dodged among the crowd, but Jim wasn't going to let Blair out of his sight. When Blair knocked over the edge of a stall selling wooden toys, Jim just leaped over the scattered merchandise and kept going.

Jim saw Blair turn off the boardwalk and dash up past a cafe into a side street and away from the shore. Jim followed him, Neo a step behind. Blair cut around corners in an attempt to lose the pursuit.

"Get out of sight," Jim told Neo. "If you can't do that, just don't try to follow. He knows me, he doesn't know you."

He held up his hand for silence, listening for Blair. He heard footsteps and panting to the right, and went that way. Then left, then right, then left again, for longer. He caught a strange scent, and an odd sound up ahead -- lapping water, though the shoreline was behind them. He burst around a corner to the edge of a canal, and remembered that that was why the area had been called Venice in the first place, the canals dug for that very purpose.

He spotted Blair up ahead, crossing a bridge, and followed. Blair's hair swung wildly as he turned to look behind him, and he made an odd gesture. Jim thundered across the bridge, and nearly slipped in a puddle. When he recovered himself, Blair was out of sight again, but Jim could still hear him. The second puddle in his path, he just leaped over. The third was even larger, but it didn't slow him down for an instant.

Jim saw Blair fumbling at the lock of a bright white house with pots of flowers -- yellow and red like splashes of paint. A moment later Blair was inside, the door slammed behind him.

Jim ran up to the house and pounded on the door. "Sandburg! Blair, it's me, Jim! Let me in. Please." Jim could hear Blair panting behind the door, but there was no answer -- not in words, at any rate. Without any fanfare or warning, the door under his hands changed from warm wood to solid iron, with a frame to match.

"What the hell --?" Jim exclaimed. He hit the door again. "Blair!" Who had changed the door? Were there Agents around? All the more reason to get to Blair as soon as possible. There was just this little problem of a door more suited to Fort Knox than a residential dwelling in sunny LA. Jim tensed, and then stopped. That wasn't the way to do it. You aren't a battering ram, and this _isn't_ real. Jim took a slow, deep breath, let it out, opened his eyes wide, and walked through the solid, closed door.

At the end of a long hallway, he spotted Blair, opening another door. With a sprint worthy of an Olympic runner, Jim raced down the hallway. Blair had barely stepped into the next room when Jim tackled him and pinned him to the floor. Blair struggled wildly. "Jim! Jim, let me go, man!"

He knows it's me? "Stop running, then!"

"You gotta get out of here, man! It's a trap! I'm not safe!"

"I know, Chief, I know."

Blair stopped struggling for a moment and turned his head to look up at Jim. "You know?"

"You do have a bug in you, don't you?"

"More like a shrimp," Blair corrected, then continued, "I'm a trap! If you knew that, why are you so being so damned stupid!" Blair's voice cracked, and he started struggling again. "She said you'd die if I didn't get it out, and I haven't gotten it out! Let me go!"

Jim clung tighter. "Who said?"

"The Oracle."

"She told me that you'd die if we didn't both get it out," Jim said. "You think I was going to let you die?"

"She told you -- the Oracle?" Blair said. "You've seen the Oracle?"

"Yes. Now are you going to stop trying to get away, or do I have to sit on your head?"

"Okay," said Blair. "I won't."

But Jim could hear Blair's rapid heartbeat. "Don't try to fool a sentinel, Chief." As Blair opened his mouth to protest, Jim continued, "It's too late for that, Sandburg. I'm already in the trap."

"Bastard," Blair muttered.

"So let's defuse the trap and get out of here."

Blair let out a sort of choking laugh. "Mixed metaphor, man." He sighed. "Okay, I promise. Let me up."

Hearing the sincerity in his voice, Jim rolled off Blair and sat up. The room they were in was some kind of dining room, with stark, modern furniture, all cast-iron and glass and white leather. The floor was covered with grey carpet. Outside was silence, a breathless, waiting silence, like the silence in the eye of a storm.

Blair sat up facing Jim, crossed his legs, and pushed the hair out of his face. "Oh, man, I forgot you were a football player. That was some tackle." He frowned. "How much time do you think we have?"

"I don't hear any Agents banging at the door yet." But they'll come, they'll come. Soon.

Blair glanced out of the room up the hallway at the solid iron door that was still there, and still shut. "Hey! Jim, how did you get in? I made that door like a rock."

"You changed the door?" Jim said. "I thought it was Them. I thought They changed it. You did it?"

Blair smiled proudly. "Yeah. I've learnt a lot, remembered a lot since you vanished. Here, catch!"

And suddenly there was a crystal ball flying toward Jim. He caught it. It felt solid and cool in his hand.

"So how did you get through the door, man?"

"I've learnt a lot too." Jim tossed the crystal ball to his other hand. "I walked through the door. Because it isn't really there. Any more than this is." The crystal ball in his hand dissolved into a pile of silver sand that melted away into nothing. He touched the grey carpet, waved an arm at the dining furniture. "None of this is real."

"I know that," Blair said.

"You know it," Jim said, touching Blair's temple with one hand, "but you don't know it," he continued, putting his other hand over Blair's heart.

Jim could feel Blair's heart beating underneath his palm, life flowing through his partner. His eyes drank in the sight of Blair. God, he's so thin! Has he started dying already?

Blair put his hand over Jim's hand, holding tight. "I'm glad you're here, Jim," he said softly. "Well, I'm not glad you're risking your life, but God, there were moments there when I thought I'd be getting a call from Dan Wolf, and it wouldn't be about some clues. "

Jim pulled Blair into a hug. "Me too, Chief, me too." He broke off and let out a long breath. "Now let's see what we can do about avoiding those body-bags for either of us."

"What's to stop Them walking through walls like you did?" Blair asked.

Jim frowned. "I don't think.... They're A.I's," he continued, with sudden insight. "For them, this is real. The computer is their world, it's the ocean they swim in."

"The Men Without Faces are Artificial Intelligences?" Blair said. "That makes a weird kind of sense." He waved at the room, "All this is -- what? -- a computer game or something?"

"With real players," Jim said. "Who really die." And the clock's ticking.

"Why?" Blair asked. "What on earth is it all for?"

Jim sighed. He didn't have the time or the talent to explain it all. "The Kombai had it right in their own way," he said. "Think evil spirits casting an enchanted sleep and draining the life out of people, and you'll get by."

Blair raised one eyebrow. "So, you've been to the land of the Laleo."

Jim smiled. "Just call me Tema."

Blair fluttered his eyelashes. "Does that make me Kelai?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "Only if we can get that thing out of you before They decide to stop waiting." Jim stood up and pulled Blair to his feet. "Any chance you can whammy the rest of the place like you did the door? Only don't make it so obvious. If you can change it, they can just change it back. But it should delay them a little."

When Blair set off to do that, Jim pulled out his phone and made a call. "Neo."

"Jim! I saw you go into -"

"This line may not be secure," Jim interrupted. "Target found. Keep watch, but stay out of sight. Remember you're a likely target."

"Understood. Good luck."

"Thanks. Over and out."

Jim could hear Blair walking up and down the house, and knew it for the delaying tactic it was. He didn't want to think about the real problem, because he didn't have a clue how to help Blair. He just knew that he had to give Blair whatever chance there was, however slim, and if that chance meant he had to walk open-eyed into the mouth of a lion, so be it. Unfortunately, this was a lot more difficult than that. The words came unbidden into his memory: You can't save Blair, and he can't save himself.

"Jim! I hope you're not zoning on me, man," Blair said from behind him.

Jim turned around. "No, just thinking."

"So how are we going to do this?" Blair asked.

Beats me. But Jim didn't say it aloud. "The Oracle said that my strength is in perception, yours is in imagination."

Blair frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe if I try again, you can look at me and see what I'm doing wrong. "

"It's a start," Jim said. But how much time do we have?


They moved into what seemed to be the living room, full of cane furniture and giant cushions and the same grey carpet. They sat down opposite each other, each sitting on a cushion. The air felt still, oppressive. Blair resisted the impulse to look up and around wildly; he couldn't shake the feeling of being watched.

Once more Blair closed his eyes, reached inside his gut, and pulled out a dead silver shrimp. He looked at Jim hopefully.

Jim's forehead creased in a frown. "It isn't there," he said.

"I know it isn't there, otherwise I'd be able --" Blair said, but Jim waved him down.

"Take off your shirt," Jim said.

What? "Jim?"

"I want to look at your back," Jim said. "Some of them thought it might be wrapped around your spinal cord, but..."

Blair shuddered involuntarily. I hate this. The thought of that thing in intimate connection with his most delicate inward parts... He took off his shirt.

Jim got up and knelt behind him, and ran gentle hands along his spine, then his neck and skull. He did it again. "Nothing," Jim muttered. Then Jim was still, one hand on Blair's back, saying nothing, not moving.

Blair craned his neck around. Jim was looking through him. Damn! He's zoned! He turned around and moved his hands toward Jim's face, but before he could say anything, Jim's eyes were focused again.

"It isn't there," Jim said. "But it isn't here either."

"Are you saying it's gone?" Blair said, sitting back.

Jim shook his head. "This thing, it isn't real," he said.

"And neither is anything else," Blair said. "So?"

"No, I mean, it isn't real in the way these things are real. It isn't a construct as such. This thing, it's like a wiretap, a wiretap on your I/O port."

Blair raised his eyebrows. "My I/O port?" I can't believe Jim is saying this! He doesn't have a geeky bone in his body! And how can a person have an I/O port?

Jim put a hand to the back of his neck. "The way they do this, there's a socket. It plugs in, feeds electrical impulses directly to the brain and back again."

"Whoa. Really? A 100% sensory map? So, are you saying they have a physical tap on the cable or something?"

Jim shook his head. "No, no, it isn't physical, it isn't something in the real world, it's a software tap."

"Jim, how come you know all this? It's not the kind of thing --"

"-- that I'm into?" Jim sighed. "Like I said, I learnt a lot."

"But who --?" Blair broke off. "Never mind." I know who. Morpheus, Neo, whoever else They are after... Mom, and the Oracle. The good guys. "Business first. How do I get this software tap off me?"

"If you were dealing with a computer, what would you do?" Jim asked.

"I'd delete it. Purge the system of it. But I'd have to find it, first."

Jim clenched his fists. "Dammit. I can't get rid of it for you, even if I could see it, I can't make you see --" He broke off. "He said I was your Guide. Maybe I can make you see."

"See what?"

"The interface," Jim said. "The border between here and there." Jim took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Give me a minute." Jim shut his eyes, and sat very still.

Jim started to glow. It was as if the light was a silver skin forming on the surface of his body, pouring out of every pore. Blair could feel the hair on his arms stand on end. Static electricity? Was this what had happened to Alex?

"Jim!" he called out in panic. "Jim, you're scaring me!"

Jim's eyes snapped open, and the light vanished.

"What the hell was that?" Blair said. "You were glowing!"

"I was glowing?"

"Yes, you were glowing. What were you doing?"

"Changing my perception," Jim said. "Reminding myself what it's like."

"What what's like? What glowing is like?"

Jim grimaced. "No. What the interface is like."

"You see it?"

"And you will too."

"I can't do that, I'm not a sentinel --"

Jim put a finger over Blair's mouth, and shook his head. "Would a sentinel be able to make a crystal ball out of nothing? This isn't a sentinel thing. You can do this."

Blair shook his head. "I--"

"What does a Guide do?" Jim asked. "How do you bring me out of a zone?"

"I talk you down, I get your attention." Where is he going with this?

"Because I'm lost in sensation," Jim said. He waved his hand at the room around them. "And what's this? This is an overwhelming sensation that everyone is lost in. That you're lost in."

"And you think you can guide me out of it?"

"I can try," Jim said. "But you're gonna have to help me."

Blair could feel the hot stillness of the air, feel a bead of sweat trickle between his shoulder blades, see the sunlight pouring into the room like molten glass, leeching the colour from everything. And still that feeling of being watched.

"Okay," he said. "What do I do?"

"I think meditating would help," Jim said.

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Jim? Is this you?"

"Sandburg!" Jim growled. "There's no time for this."

Blair raised his hands. "Okay, okay. I was surprised, is all."

Soon Blair was sitting in the lotus position, breathing deeply and slowly, with Jim sitting opposite him, his hands in Jim's hands.

"Listen to my voice," Jim said. "You aren't in a house in California. That isn't real. You are inside yourself. Picture a network of information, glowing, connecting. Find the nexus. Find the gateway. Find what doesn't belong."

And, gradually, Blair could see it. Branching, twisting, like a glowing net or a forest of octopi, with flashes of light pulsing along and between them. Is that my own neurons I see firing? he wondered. He followed the pulses to a trunk, a converging of rivers, which got bigger and thicker, though each pulse was still distinct. Find what doesn't belong, he thought. He hovered, looking back and forth along the trunk. Three of these things belong together, one of these things is not the same. He suppressed a giggle, and knew somehow that he was running out of time.

And then he saw it, a dark patch in the river of light. He went closer, and saw something, a black cable with a sickly green glow. At one end it was hooked into the glowing trunk with sharp claws, and where it touched, the glow died. The other end vanished into darkness.

How to go about this? he wondered. This thing could well be booby-trapped. Should I cut the cable, or try to dig it out? He suspected that cutting the cable would be the worst thing he could do, because it was the most obvious. Maybe I can burn it out. He sent heat, with laser precision, to each of the claws at once, and where they met as well. It glowed red, then yellow, then white, and with a flash, it curled up and away, and a white pulse travelled down the cable, burning it up like a fuse, leaving nothing behind.

Gotcha! Blair thought. Now what?

Gotta get back to Jim.


Verity (part 13)

Jim sat watching Blair breathing, sitting still as a statue. God, I hope this works, he thought. Minutes crawled by.

Three things happened at once. Blair gasped and opened his eyes, someone started pounding on the front door, and Jim's cell phone rang.

"I did it, Jim, I did it!" Blair exclaimed, grinning.

Jim jerked his head toward the door and stood up. "We've got company. I think They know you did it too." He pulled out the phone and flipped it open. "Yes?"

"Two Agents," said Neo's voice.

"Thanks, I had noticed," Jim said. "You get out of here. We've got it out, we can make our own way."

"But --"

"We aren't trapped," Jim said, hoping he was right, hoping that he could Guide Blair to one more thing. "Beat it."

"Crap. I didn't come here to stand by and do nothing."


The phone disconnected.


The Agents had given up on the door and were now battering at the walls. Jim could hear them cracking.

Jim knelt down where Blair was still sitting. "Chief, we haven't got much time, but we've got one trick up our sleeve. You wanna get out of here, right?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Like I really want to get beat up by inhuman bad guys? "

"You want to get to the real world? It will be scary at first -- we can't get to you until after you actually wake up. And it will take a little while to get there. But I'll be there when we do get you, I promise."

"Jim, so long as you'll be there, I'm cool," Blair said. "So what do I do?"

"I think this is going to be easier that what you just did," Jim said. The pounding on the walls continued. Jim could smell plaster dust, and a breath of water. They'd made the first hole. "What you have to do, is go, as you just did, to the nexus, but instead of looking, go through to the other side."

"The other side?"

"To the real world," Jim said. "The land of the Laleo."

"Kelai will follow Tema there," Blair said.

Jim shook his head. "Tema will guide Kelai there, then follow. Don't worry about me, I've done it before."

"Okay, Jim." Blair shut his eyes.

Jim murmured to him as he'd done before, all the while trying not to be distracted by the sounds from the front, as the Agents made the hole larger, large enough for a man to get through. Then there was a shout, and the sound of running.

Blair's breathing slowed, and then he started to glow. His skin and hair and clothes were outlined in light, were made up of light, which sparkled, dissolved and vanished. Jim breathed a sigh of relief.

He could hear the Agents entering the house. No. There was only one of them. Neo must have distracted the other one. Damn fool. Should I leave, or should I try to help him? Then again, he'd be more help out of here, able to go back in, than caught.

He shut his eyes, and reached for the awareness of where he really was -- strapped into a chair on the Nebuchadnezzar.

When the Agent ran into the room all he caught was a flash of light and the stink of ozone.


Jim opened his eyes on the Nebuchadnezzar. "Is Neo out yet?" he asked Tank, startling him. "I saw Blair go, he should be awake now. We can move as soon as we've got Neo."

Tank shook his head.

"Put me back in," Jim demanded. Moments later, he was back in the sun-spattered hotel room. He looked out the window, wondering which way to go. Should he retrace his steps, try to find the house? But Neo would be nowhere near there by now. Movement in the sky caught his attention, and he saw what at first was a large black crow. Then he focused on it and realized that it was Neo -- flying! They weren't kidding about his talents.

He opened the window and stood back, allowing Neo to fly in. Neo grinned at him. "Thanks," he said. He jerked a thumb behind him. "That was fun. They may be fast, but they can't fly."

"Thanks for the distraction," Jim said.

"You're welcome."

"Now let's go get Blair."


One moment he was meditating, following the light, and the next moment he was choking. Calm down, Blair, Jim's been through this before, remember? He remembered the incident in Alex's room, when Jim had thought he was choking. It's just a breathing apparatus. His heart pounded, and he opened his eyes to a sight he'd heard of but never seen. Darkness, and flashes of light, and an eerie red glow illuminating a curved casket and the black cables coming out of his naked body. I'm here. I'm actually in the land of the Laleo! Or the land of the A.I.s. Whatever.

Well, I'm not going to just lie here waiting for Jim. He put one hand up, and pushed it through the translucent covering. It was like pushing through tough jelly. He broke through, sat up, pulled out the breathing apparatus, and coughed up the liquid he'd been breathing. He was coughing so hard, he didn't notice the metal thing that suddenly hovered in front of him until it seized him by the neck.

Oh shit! It's going to kill me! But it didn't. After unscrewing the cable at the back of his neck, it dropped him like a sack of potatoes and darted away again. The cables snapped off his body with the sound of demented popcorn, and he found himself falling down and down with the liquid from his casket, as if he were inside a warped Gothic waterslide. By the end of it he was almost enjoying himself, and let out a whoop when he emerged into the air at last, almost choking when he landed in the water with a splash.

He felt very weak, but he knew how to float. God, Jim, I hope you know where I am.

His heart nearly stopped when the spotlight hit him. Something huge was hovering over him; he could hear some kind of engines, but the light was too bright for him to see anything. He heard a chain rattling, and then a huge metal claw-thing grabbed him, like he was a car at a wrecker's yard, and he was pulled out of the water. He shut his eyes tight, prayed that whoever it was wasn't about to drop him, and tried not to think about how high he was going.

The chains rattled one final time as he was pulled inside the hatch of the -- ship? -- and square doors shut below him with a clang. Voices. Warm hands took hold of him, pulled him out of the grip of the metal claw, laid him on a gurney.

"Jim?" he whispered. "Jim?"

Warm hand, warm voice. "I'm here, Chief."

Blair blinked, but everything was blurry. He blinked again. It was Jim. "Jim!"

"I'm here too, sweetie," came from the other side.

"Naomi?" he said incredulously. "You're here too?"

"Welcome to the real world," she said.

"Welcome to the war zone," Jim said dryly.

"Doesn't matter," Blair said. "The two people I love most are here, and that means I'm home."

"It's going to be dangerous," Jim said.

Blair smiled. "Been there, done that, have the scars to prove it." He blinked. "Though I guess I don't, not here."

"You do," Jim said. The gurney moved, as they pushed Blair toward the infirmary. Jim moved alongside it, still holding Blair's hand.

"Why?" Blair asked.

"It's a mind over matter thing," Jim answered.

Dart, who was pushing one end of the gurney, said, "Doesn't he ever shut up?"

"No," Jim answered.

Naomi laughed and said "No" at the same time as Jim.

Naomi patted Blair's shoulder and said, "Now, sweetie, you do what the medic tells you, and concentrate on gaining your strength." She added, softly, to herself, "Because now that we have the Two, the battle really begins."

### the end ###


Thanks to Jonathan Burns for mucho multiple brainstorming about the nature of the Matrix, and how that would interact with The Sentinel. Many of the cool ideas were his.

Thanks to Queen Lila Her Trekness for Poking.

Thanks to Susan Williams of Skeeter Press, whose editing and back-and-forthing made this a much better story.

Thanks to the folks at Cascade Times for help with information about Jim's bedclothes, Blair's night attire, and Jim's serial number.

Thanks to Mary Shadinger for her story "Unit Commander/The Shepherd" for pointing out to me the existence of the Ranger's Code, and to Google <> for pointing me to a site which had the whole text (which I now can't remember).

Thanks to the Venice Beach site at <> and Yahoo Maps for a map...

The official website for The Matrix is <>.

Lastly and most importantly, thanks to the Author of us all, without whom there would be no subcreations.