I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suites, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.

I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Shiny Oxfords complete the ensemble.

Where am I?

I turn my head from side to side. Plain walls, evenly-spaced doors and room placards, stand stoic guard down carpeted corridors. Each side is a mirror of the other. Ceiling-mounted lights illuminate the carpet’s brown and black diamond pattern. Clean and orderly. A five-star hotel, four at the least. But which one, and how did I get here?

A worse question occurs to me, one that drives out the others. Who am I? My name is there, ready to be taken but each time I reach for it, it slithers away like a wriggling eel.

Think, damn it. Think.

My mind bumps into one wall after another. It’s an awful feeling. Lost, helpless, insecure. The answers are beyond those walls but they’re impenetrable, inscrutable, silent.

I push myself up, stand on stiff limbs, and gaze at the painting again.

A pinprick of memory stabs through the wall. I owned this painting, or rather a reproduction of it. Sunday afternoon on some island I’d never heard of. I made an important decision, a life changing one, while staring at this painting. I squeeze my eyes closed, take in the darkness, and reach for the full memory. All I get are the dregs. Nevertheless, they’re powerful. There’s a bone-deep sadness there, a twinge of fatalistic resolve, and even a little curiosity. Despite their power, I can’t resolve these feelings into anything concrete.

My hands tremble as I smooth down the wrinkles on my dress shirt.

The hallway is quiet. Not even the sound of guests, ambient street noise or the ever-present buzz of hotel air-conditioning. I stand there concentrating, listening. I make out the faint electric hum of the hallway light bulbs. It’s like I’m in the vacuum of space, where sound waves die unheard, and the hum is my spacesuit keeping me alive in an airless void.

My suit…

Sudden inspiration has me patting my jacket. I find a pair of glasses in my breast pocket but ignore them. I almost weep with relief when my hand comes down on the bulge of a wallet in the inner pocket of my jacket. I pull it out. It’s a dark leather like the chair, but more worn. Soft and pliable, where the chair had some strength left. Barely breathing, I rip it open. Inside is a driver’s license, credit cards, and a hundred dollars in twenties.

The license says my name is Jacob Sheppard. Jake. It doesn’t feel right. My name should fit, shouldn’t it? It should feel as uniquely mine as my hand or foot.

The picture on my license is of a man in his late thirties. Pale skin. Dark reddish hair. Trimmed mustache and beard, blue eyes framed by glasses. A hand to my face confirms the mustache and beard. I rub at it, feeling the soft facial hair.

The credit cards are mine too if the silver lettering is to be believed.

I still can’t dredge up anything about myself and it turns my stomach sour. A hundred hastily-formed explanations coalesce and then melt into oblivion under scrutiny until only one remains.

I’ve had an aneurism or something similarly catastrophic. I need medical help.

“All right. All right,” I mumble, tamping down the panic. “Go get help. There’s plenty of people who can help.”

Turning to the right, I see elevator doors. Taped to one of them is a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Scrawled on it, in dark green crayon, are two words.

Lobby. Hurry.

The message is for me, I’m sure of it, so I snatch it off the door, fold it and jam it in my pocket.

Gratitude and fear mix. The second word is ominous, but someone’s guiding me and that bolsters my courage.

I take the elevator down and when the doors glide open, I look out on an empty lobby. Sunlight pours in through tall plate-glass windows. The striated marble floor, buffed to a high shine, reflects the glare.

The elevator dings, prompting me to step out. I take two tentative ones and peer around.

The reception desk has no one behind it, but above in gold lettering is the name Cheshire Hotel. It means nothing to me, and there is nothing familiar about the empty lounge bar, or the abandoned concierge desk. The entire lobby appears pristine, the smell of some lemon-scented product hanging in the air. The hum of the ceiling’s florescent lights are my only company.

“Hello?” My cracked voice echoes about the lobby, rebounding off the walls and empty furniture. I clear my throat and try again. “Is anyone here?”

No answer. The hotel can’t be closed, and there’s no sign of it being under renovation. It’s midday or at least looks like it. There must be guests in the rooms above, and if there are, there must be hotel staff to cater to them, but no one’s around.

I find the phone at the concierge desk, pick up the handset, and listen. No ring tone at all. I try dialing, but the buttons don’t produce tones. So much for calling nine-one-one.

The emptiness and silence gives me the creeps. I’m like a lone man wandering the interior of a snow globe.

Outside, parked cars line the street and more buildings stand tall across the way, but there are no pedestrians. And worse, no traffic. Not a single car, minivan, or box truck passes. There are no waiting vehicles at the intersection.

My blood runs cold. Has there been some disaster? A chemical weapon attack? If that were the case, there’d be evidence of panic, of chaos, and there is none. Fear washes through me, and I force myself to turn away from the windows. The hotel lobby must have some clue to make sense of this hollow madness.

A flash of bright yellow catches my eye by the check-in counter. It’s out of place in a room so meticulously orderly and clean. Another piece of construction paper lays crooked on the hardwood surface. I hurry over to it and read. The words Saint Mary’s Confessional and Hurry are scrawled in that same handwriting.

Another memory breaks through. I made a confession to a priest, but not in a church. He was a small man, wizened and wrinkled, with kind eyes. Soft hands enclosed one of mine on a hospital bed. Reluctantly, I confessed to a series of illegal acts. I should’ve been guilty but all I felt was pride and a touch of fear. What if he broke our confidence and told someone? He wouldn’t do that, would he?

The crisp construction paper folds neatly and I tuck it away beside the first. These notes are my only clue. They’ve been left for me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Without anything else to go on, it’d be foolish to ignore them.

All right. I’ll find Saint Mary’s.

A map on the concierge desk names the city Larenden. It means nothing to me.

I unfold the map, lay it on the desk and smooth out the creases. The city is a grid. Avenues run east/west and streets north/south. Doesn’t take me long to find the Cheshire Hotel. Another thirty seconds to find Saint Mary’s. It’s twelve blocks west and four south. Not difficult at all, but I decide to take the map in case a problem arises.

A disturbing thought hits me as I make my way to the entryway. What if I’m locked in? An image of me tossing a chair at one of the windows comes to mind, but when I push on the door’s bar it swings open.

A shroud hangs over the city. It feels like I’m deaf.

The dry, crisp air of an autumn day, scented by automobile fumes, closes around me. It is the odor of every city and it’s comforting in a way. Though there is no traffic there must have been recently. I inhale deeply and cough it back out.

The faded street sign on the corner marks the avenue in front of me as twenty-eighth and the cross-street as Darby. I orient myself, turning west on twenty-eighth and stride in that direction. All the while, my eyes dart from side to side looking for someone, anyone. The streets, and all the shops I pass, are deserted.

For all I know, I could be the last man on Earth. I don’t know what that’d feel like, but not this. As contradictory as it seems, I feel claustrophobic out in the open, phonophobic in dead silence.

I watch the traffic lights change as I walk, clicking from green to yellow to red. At the corner of twenty-eighth and Galice, the faintly-illuminated red palm on the opposite side pauses me.

It occurs to me I know the basics. What a hotel is and how it runs. What buildings and automobiles are? How a city should look, sound, and smell. I knew what a phone was and I knew to dial nine-one-one for help. And I know that a red palm means to stop. It’s like someone took an eraser to my brain, but strategically left knowledge that I’d need to survive. That implies someone did this to me on purpose and that feels like paranoia so I put it out of my mind.

I’ve moved on to Benton Street when I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. My heart leaps. Something low to the ground slides smoothly between parked cars. It might be a dog. I break into a trot and close on it. At this point, even a dog would be a relief.

It boils out of the space between a blue minivan’s rear bumper and the front fender of a white VW bug. A cloud of roiling, opaque smoke hovering six inches above the pavement. It’s dark gray and angry. Neon-blue electric flares flick out of it like tiny lightning bolts. My heart jolts as if hit by one of them and I come to an abrupt halt. My initial thought is that it’s some bizarre weather phenomenon, but that’s dashed as the floater moves to intercept me.

Shock holds me paralyzed until it gets close enough to touch. The hairs on the back of my neck spike. The floater makes a sound like angry surf pounding a shore, and lunges at my legs. I cry out and backpedal, but too slowly. Where the smoke touches my legs pricks of pain heighten to lances. I curse, take another step back and kick at it with all my might. My dress shoe passes through it, and electric shocks stab at my foot, but it rears back as if I’ve hurt it.

I don’t know the rules of this engagement. None of it makes sense, but I know when I’ve injured an enemy.

I steady myself and when the floater comes for me again, I kick. Another angry wave emanates from it but this time the electric shock to my foot and ankle is so severe, I lose balance and fall to the cracked pavement. The floater dissociates in front of me as I lay mesmerized. Curls of smoke lift into the breeze, separate and vanish again and again until there’s nothing left. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Trembling, I stand and test the foot. The pain has died down and it can take my weight, but my shoe looks like someone took a scouring pad to it. The laces are scorched. I shudder to think what that thing would have done to my bare skin.

The floaters must be the key to this whole thing, and there must be more. One of those creatures couldn’t depopulate an entire city, not when I dispersed it with a few kicks. Now I have an enemy. Though this isn’t good news, it’s better than gnawing, uncertainty.

I hurry down the street, passing empty shops and buildings, scanning the way ahead for more floaters. The sign for a sporting goods store, Sports One, appears ahead. I’d be better off with a weapon. I try the front door and it’s open. The interior is dark. A cursory glance at the register shows I’m alone. Racks of men’s and women’s exercise clothes create a commercial labyrinth. In the back, footballs, basketballs and baseballs are arrayed on a wall. Beside them is what I’m looking for. A wooden baseball bat. Wood won’t conduct electricity. I grab one, step away from the rack and take a smooth practice swing. It makes a satisfying swish through the air.

I used to play baseball, but not outside. No one does that anymore. I played virtually like everyone else and was on a team. I was a pretty good second baseman. I remember that now. I have a decent arm, but was a flop as a pitcher.

Frustrated, I grind my teeth. I remember baseball, but not where I am or how I got here. It’s maddening.

Unease hits me when I pass the register. It feels strange to leave without paying, so I fish out a twenty and drop it on the counter. I don’t know if anyone will find it but the thought of shoplifting disgusts me.

Before leaving I peer out the window and freeze. Two floaters glide along the sidewalk and halt, hovering over the place where the first dispersed. Their inscrutable alien appearance makes my skin crawl. The construction paper messages said to hurry, but making a mad dash for it seems reckless. I have to play it smart.

I skulk in the shadows, watching as they circle the crime scene. The floaters split up. One goes north, the other south.

Taking the opportunity, I slip out, and continue toward Saint Mary’s at a jog.

At twenty-sixth and Taylor, I’m spotted again and by the time I run two blocks west there are four floaters behind me. Each of them skim over the dirty pavement, roiling and bubbling like miniature storm clouds.

My breath is labored now, forced through heaving lungs. I run full out for a hundred yards only to stop and bend, leaning on my bat, free hand resting on a knee while I gasp for air. I’m not overweight, but I’m definitely out of shape.

I turn south once more, cutting through the empty tables of a sidewalk café. Flimsy chairs clatter to the bricks when I bull my way through. I glance back over my shoulder. They’re gaining on me.

Sunlight dims when real clouds, thick scudding white ones, ten thousand feet up, obscure the sun. It’s like they’ve sided with their smaller, more vicious, brethren.

A floater glides around the corner at twenty-fifth and Taylor, cutting me off. My heart lurches. They have to be communicating somehow. I swivel my head seeking an escape route. There are plenty of buildings I could hide in, but I’d just trap myself unless there’s an unlocked back entrance. A sixth and seventh cloud round the corner ahead of me.

My Oxfords clap on the asphalt, and my thigh muscles burn with fatigue, as I sprint across the street toward an alleyway between a restaurant and a hair salon. The alley is shrouded in shadow. If it’s a dead end, I’ll have to turn and fight. Maybe keeping all of them in front of me will help, but there’s seven of them, and I don’t like the odds.

The thought of being cornered sends panicky flares through my mind. Even with the bat, I can’t fight seven floaters. They’ll rush me all at once. I’ve never been prey before. A dark encroaching dread sends the pit of my stomach sinking. The floaters are intelligent and must be planning my demise in an incomprehensible alien language. How can I survive such odds?

If a virus, hunted by antibodies, could think and feel, it’d feel like me.

The alley turns right, herding me south as it narrows. I skid to a halt at a back door that must belong to the hair salon, but it’s locked tight. I curse, wrenching at the handle and consider trying to smash my way in with the bat, but that’d take too long. A glance behind me shows a darkening fog of cloud creatures coming my way.

I race to the end of the alley and find it blocked by a chain-link fence. Through the diamond shaped links I see dim sunlight reflecting off the darkened asphalt of twenty-fifth avenue. I heave the bat over the fence and it clatters to the pavement on the other side. I jam the toe of one shoe into the fence and lift myself up. The Oxfords chafe and I wish I had thought to grab running shoes in Sports One.

I scramble to the top of the fence and watch in horror as the floaters mill about underneath me. Despite the fact they can hover, it doesn’t look like they can fly.

An ungainly lurch from the top of the fence sends me to the dirty pavement on the opposite side. I land with a jolt and a lance of pain shoots through my left ankle. Grimacing in pain, I reach for the bat, but pull my hand back when the floaters begin to flow through the fence. Dark gray smoke puffs out through the gaps, expanding on my side, as if they are forcing themselves through. Cursing, I abandon my weapon, and limp to the end of the alley.

By the time I get to the street, my twisted ankle has dulled to a low throb. Adrenaline and cortisol must be flowing through me in gallons.

I glance around and see no floaters. I’ve caught a break.

In the distance, the majestic bell-tower of Saint Mary’s glints tall and white in the sun. My safety, and the explanation for all of this, awaits me there. I hope.

When I get to the steps of the cathedral, my lungs feel like they’re going to explode. I stop, put both hands on my knees, and draw in a big lungful of air. I peer behind me and my jaw drops.

I can’t count the number of floaters moving toward me. There are too many.

I barrel up the steps, praying all the while that the doors are unlocked. I grab one of the ornate handles and pull. It swings open and I dash inside, over a vestibule’s crimson carpet, and through a second set of doors into the nave.

The interior is beautiful. Colored light from stained-glass windows bathe deep rosewood pews and a spotless marble floor. High arches, at least thirty feet over my head, cascade into the distance. I choose an aisle and hurry down until I see the confessional off to my left in the transept. There’s a bright yellow piece of construction paper taped to the entrance.

I yank it off the door and unfold it. More dark green crayon.

Don’t be afraid, it reads. There’s a light inside. Touch it and you will understand everything.

Don’t be afraid. The phrase triggers another memory.

I was in an operating room laying on a gurney. A chubby-faced nurse was connecting wires to implants in my brain. She said don’t be afraid. The absurdity of it angered me. Of course I was afraid. Telling me not to be didn’t help. A malignant brain tumor was months away from killing me. My only hope was a new and dangerous procedure called an extraction. What could be more frightening?

An extraction. The details elude me, but I can make assumptions on what that might entail, and it doesn’t comfort me one bit.

The loud surf-pounding noise of the floaters breaks me out of my rumination. It echoes through the cathedral, calling to me.

I throw open the confessional’s door, step inside and slam it shut.

Directly in front of me, a rip in the world hangs in mid-air, an open wound on reality. Fuzzy violet light streams from it, like a black light. My eyes tear and my stomach does queasy flips when I try to peer through the glare.

Instinct tells me to get as far away from this thing as possible, but I need to understand.

Gritting my teeth, I move forward, and thrust my hand inside.

It pulls me in like I weigh nothing. My mouth opens in a silent scream.

The world is data. I am data.

A maelstrom of information swirls around me, every bit as violent and aggressive as a hurricane. The force of it is too strong, and I am overwhelmed. I attempt to close my eyes only to realize I have none. There are no such base things as eyes, ears or hearts in this place. No corporeal tissue to live, die and rot. No brains to be eaten by cancer.

I reach into the tempest and imagine what I want. It doesn’t so much appear before me as meld with me.

Jake Sheppard. Born July 12, 2235 in Dueron, South Nebraska, American Confederacy, to Abel and Judy Sheppard. Never married. Parental application rejected 2257. Profession: Neuro-Programmer. Extracted: November 20, 2286. Died January 23, 2287. Cause of Death: Inoperable Glioblastoma Multiforme.

Extracted. There’s that word again. I search for it and the answer melts into me.

Extraction: A procedure developed by Dr. Lihwa Tseung and Dr. Lindsay Barnam in which a patient’s consciousness—their memories and associations—are transferred/translated into digital format and stored for future use.

The realization of what I am sends me spinning, and for a moment I question my existence. I feel sick, like I need to vomit, but I don’t have a body. I shouldn’t have physical reactions.

I’m a copy of Jake Sheppard extracted two months before his death.

I want my memories back, every last one. As if on cue, the maelstrom of information slows and envelops me like a cocoon, seeping in, combining with me. I attempt to categorize and sort the memories and their inter-connections. As I do, my understanding grows.

I’m in a virtual space called Dimensions. It’s not really a game, though some treat it as such. It’s a simulated environment, or rather seventy-three thousand different ones, where users interact with one another and decide for themselves how to use the space. Larenden is one of them.

Several years before my death, I sampled Dimensions, enjoyed myself and soon became deeply immersed. The virtual world held adventures, excitement and delights that the real one did not. And like any addict, I let my real life crumble around me while I indulged.

Not long after, the seizures began and I was diagnosed with multiple malignant brain tumors. I was terminal. When I was informed, and treatment was suggested, I realized the best case scenario would leave me weak and rotting on a hospital bed for my last few months. That’s not how I wanted to live out the rest of my life so I refused treatment. I sank into a morose depression until one day, encased in my bodysuit, wires connected to my implants, I realized the answer was in front of me the whole time, and I was qualified to pull it off.

As a former Neuro-programmer, I was aware of the developments in my field. Extraction emerged and became a controversial technology, banned by the government until further study, and reviled by every major religious group. But I was undeterred. I used my contacts. I begged, borrowed, and in one case stole the money I needed to have myself illegally extracted, and digitally smuggled into Dimensions.

Jake Sheppard died in his sleep at Hettering Medical Center, but a copy of me lived on in the virtual world. Immortality. Or as long as Dimensions’ vast server array remained operational.

I frolicked among the environments, enjoying a pain-free existence while pretending to be a live user. I became a true ghost in the machine. How long that went on, I don’t know. Time has a different feel in the virtual world.

I must have been reckless at some point and tripped a security measure. Dimensions’s anti-viral program kicked in and hunted me. But I wasn’t some half-assed Direct Action or Polymorphic virus. I was a living, thinking human being and initially evaded them.

I could have made a copy of myself, like a true virus, but the concept disturbed me to such a degree that I discarded the notion. Though I existed because the original Jake Sheppard copied himself, it was only out of necessity. The human body is fragile and easily destroyed. Data is not. I wanted to make a backup of myself in case I was caught, but was threatened by the idea of another me. A copy would feel the same way.

Dimensions’s anti-viral program has an intelligence of its own. Not a sophisticated one, but still smart. They learned my tricks and trapped me in Larenden. Or so they thought. I discovered a way out. I could slip out of Larenden unnoticed among all the routine data traffic during an administrator’s reboot. From there, I could hop to another environment and lie low until the obnoxious little floaters went back to hunting uploaded patch viruses.

I wreaked havoc in Larenden. Destroying and modifying code, trying to force the administrator’s hand, all the while evading the anti-viral program. This random vandalism placed the environment ‘under maintenance’, but didn’t cause the reboot I needed. It became clear I’d have to find a way to do it myself, and I did, but it takes time to break through the security routines. Time the anti-viral program won’t give me.

The only way to survive was to hide my code amid the background of the city, confusing their attempts to find me. But they adapted, and sought my computational thought patterns. There was only one reasonable response to this. Change my thought patterns. It was tantamount to lobotomizing myself with the hope of reversing the effects later. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

I gave an encryption key to a copy of me, but stripped the copy of all traceable memories, leaving only enough to propel him to the conference room of Bright Star Bank. Once there, he saw the tear in the world and merged with it, unlocking my full personality. I almost succeeded. The anti-viral program showed up at the last moment and forced me to try again from a different location.

A health food store named Brain Foods, the stairwell of the Shinju Office building, a run-down bowling alley, Selek parking garage, and now Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

I break through seven of the ten security walls meant to keep hackers out of administrative functions before the floaters arrive. It’s an improvement. Last time I only managed six. I create a simulacrum of myself, bristling with fake defenses, but hollow on the inside. A decoy. When the anti-viral program attacks it, I slip away.

Where to next? A closer location. Sports One. I find it in the programming and make another rip in the world, right beside where I took the bat. I can’t risk large coding changes in any one location so I place my drone back in the Cheshire Hotel and leave notes on the elevator door, the reception desk and in Sports One. Lastly, I change the character’s dress shoes into sneakers. Every little bit helps.

In one of these iterations, he will get to the rift with enough time for me to break through the security walls. Once that’s accomplished, I’ll force a reboot and escape.

I’m alive, and I want to continue living.

I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suits, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.

I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Oddly, I’m wearing sneakers.

Where am I?