His first instinct was to scream.

Something was very wrong. He wanted to understand it, but the more he tried, the more his thoughts skittered along unexpected paths. He should have been screaming—should have screamed his throat bloody by now and to hell with the punishments. But how could he scream without air, without a voice, without lungs or a throat or a mouth? Words struggled up from the fraying edges of his consciousness—sensory deprivation, it'll be over soon, it'll be okay, it never lasts long, use it, focus. He remembered being in The Tank—pure dark, no sound but his own harsh breathing, the rush of blood roaring in his ears. But this wasn't The Tank. It never robbed him of the sense of weight in his limbs, the temperature of tepid water against his skin. There, he could fight and thrash. Here, he had no arms or legs to flail. Nothing to fight against.

A soothing litany looped around his thoughts—it's fight-or-flight, adrenaline, rein it in, focus, concentrate. He did his best to listen, comply. He needed to control his breathing, listen to his heartbeat, center himself. The well-used strategy collided with his reality. No air. No way to breathe. No heart to beat or ears to hear it.

No self to center.

He grabbed hold of a thought he could focus on—count backwards by threes—and poured all his effort into it. Fifty, forty-seven, forty-four. The numbers ticked by uselessly. Thirty-eight, thirty-five, thirty-two. They slid ineffectually over more insistent, panicked thoughts. They're finished with me. One disappointment too many. More of him drifted away with each digit. Twenty-six, twenty-three, twenty. Didn't think they'd end me like this. Fourteen, twelve, ten, nine. He was spread thin, losing meaning. Eight, seven, six. He counted down into the void. Five, four.

He scattered across the endless nothingness.




He wasn't warm—there was no such thing as warm or cold anymore—but the awareness of what warmth had been like slowly dawned, a sluggish memory of light shining on his face, orange and red behind closed eyes.

Ideas skittered across his battered consciousness, large and fleeting and impossibly complicated, too big and fast for him to latch onto, slow and grating, grinding into him so deliberately he couldn't make sense of them. Images and concepts bled through, tickling at him. Most were unfamiliar—a rope net skimming over water, an arm sweeping colorful bits of paper into a box, a magnet drawing up a trail of metal shavings. He struggled to understand.

Someone is calling me.

He tried to make the pieces fit together.

He felt a terrible crash of static, loud and painful. It took him a moment to place what he was experiencing as sound and a moment more to understand that meant he was hearing, which meant he had ears again, which he was pretty sure was a good thing. It took him much longer to realize that these painfully loud, tinny sounds were voices.

"…memory's leaking like a son-of-a-bitch."

"Yeah, well, he'll be lucky if that's his worst problem. It's a real hack consolidation job."

"Wren said he'd be alright."

A snort. "Wren's one to talk."

He wanted to open his eyes and see who was talking in these deafening insect voices, but apparently functional ears didn't equal functional eyes. He focused on the sounds—strange cellophane wrapper crinkles, the clanging of metal on metal, arrhythmic jackhammer clicks, and bad microphone feedback.

"Dammit, Rees! You switched on the auditory pick-ups?" The voice was close and angry.

"I did?" A pause and more strange crinkling sounds followed. "Shit!"

He heard a building rumble and then a whoosh like venting air ducts. Then it was quiet again.

The lights were on now. He knew this, because he could see. He saw the bluish glow from the fluorescent tube installed in the ceiling above him, diffused by its milky plastic cover.

"Hey man, welcome back."

The voice sounded fuzzy, like it was coming through a communicator with a dying battery, but it was at a comfortable volume. He dragged his attention toward the source of the sound, appreciating the delicate interplay of muscles involved in the movement. Curious murky-colored eyes looked down at him from a gray face. He studied the face for only a moment before moving on, greedy to take in all the detail of his surroundings that he could. The room was dull, nearly barren, its walls and ceiling the same toneless blue-gray. A tattered sofa sat against the wall, its lumpy, shapeless cushions covered in morbid upholstery—floral print in washed-out grays and blacks instead of the bright colors of real flowers. Off to the side was a counter with a wooden stool. His mind had trouble interpreting the console that took up much of the counter space. The monitor with its blinking cursor was easy enough to understand, but the keys, buttons, and switches underneath it, the strange heat shimmer around it, were wholly unfamiliar. He swiftly moved his gaze on to objects he could understand—the armchair, the side table, and the strong and smooth-looking closed metal doors in the walls that reminded him of a picture he'd once seen of an old-fashioned deep-sea vehicle. The room was alien, but not particularly frightening.

"Hey, can you hear me?"

He shifted his eyes back to the speaker. Tentatively, he nodded, his head flopping up and down like a rag doll's. His lips quirked slightly at the realization of movement. It was progress, anyway.

The other man smiled. Sandy gray, shaggy hair covered his narrow forehead and fell into his eyes. "Right on. Think you can sit up?"

He looked down and frowned. He was lying on a cot, arms resting neatly at his sides. He couldn't see his legs because they were under a blanket, but he knew they were there because he could dimly feel them. Concentrating, he slid his hands up and placed his palms flat against the cot, using his back and shoulder muscles to push himself up onto his elbows. The gray man gently took his arms, a muted feeling of warmth and pressure spreading from the touch, and helped him to sit up fully. He patted him on the shoulder and took a step back.

"Name's Rees," he said, extending a slender hand.

He looked down at his own hands, bringing one up in front of his face. He studied the smooth palm, totally free of any lines or texture—creepy—before extending it to Rees. Rees took it and pumped it once before releasing it. The feeling of the motion reverberated up his arm.

"You got a name, man?"

Did he? Everyone had a name, surely. He nodded, vague impressions of a familiar series of sounds bubbling up from his subconscious. "Victor," he said. The name sounded right, even if the voice he said it with didn't. He ran the tip of his tongue along the back of his teeth, frowning again when he felt not discrete bumps, but one smooth, solid ridge. An image of a grinning plastic doll bobbed to the surface of his thoughts. He was starting to feel a little dizzy.

"Well, Victor, it's good to meet you." Rees grinned sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck, bony elbow poking out from the sleeve of his oversized t-shirt. "Sorry about the kludgy avatar, but we had to get you tapped back in as quickly as we could. Now that you're up and running, you can help us work out the bugs and make upgrades."

Victor blinked. "Avatar?"

"Yeah, I know it's gotta be uncomfortable in there," Rees continued, either not registering or choosing to ignore Victor's confusion, "but it's the best we could do on short notice without any pre-calibrations. Beats the alternative, right? Damn, man, Wren wouldn't tell us what was up, but you must've seriously pissed off the wrong corporate. What the hell happened with you, anyway? I mean, we find you way out in the middle of some bumfuck file server, no transfer codes, no documentation…shit, you don't even have a serial number."

Now he was more than a little dizzy. "F-file server? Where?" He understood most of the words Rees used, but couldn't put them together into anything that made sense.

"Hey, I get it if you're not in the most trusting place right now, but-" Rees' eyes widened, filling with dismay as they met Victor's. "Fuck," he whispered. "I knew you'd have some memory leakage, but, shit man, tell me what you remember."

Victor shook his head. The air in the little gray room was far too thin. "What happened? What's wrong with me?"

"Come on, you gotta remember something. You know where we are, right?" A pleading look crossed Rees' face. "Right?"

He shook his head again, slowly.

"Shit. This is seriously fucked up. I don't know how…." Rees rubbed the back of his neck again and lowered his eyes. He took a deep breath before meeting Victor's gaze. "You were uploaded, Victor. You're part of Animus Net now."

Victor looked down at his lineless hands, darted his eyes around the gray room, and lost consciousness.