How sz<3* ended up on a couch in that seedy Mumbai hotel is another story.

Why he had extraordinarily large eyebrows that rose from the top of his rather round eyes in a high arch right to the edge of his hairline, was a matter of greater urgency. Staring at himself in the mirror, he noticed no trace of any other facial hair. His cheeks like two well-baked buns perched evenly on either side of his face. He looked around the room, half-expecting to see his controller. His human. His other. The room was empty. Why he was here and not in… well, maybe it was true, what everyone had been murmuring about for the last month. The engine had turned rogue.

Random avatars were being disentangled and turned out into the…what was this called…the realverse? What was real anyway? sz<3* had no idea how the master engine had collaborated across virtually real and really virtual systems, why he had been selected, what had happened to his human version… but here he was, outside his usual reality in something alternate, someone else’s world and he felt human enough – he raised his palm to his nostrils to check if he was breathing and felt a strange, unbidden warmth.

It had started a few months ago. The 54-hour disruption. Everything had crashed. When it all came back, weird things started to happen. Things were melting into each other. Memories seemed to overlap. Boundaries collapsed. All restrictions seemed to have come undone. He could go to places he didn’t know existed. He could see things he couldn’t have imagined. He felt the horizon between what he knew he didn’t know and what he didn’t know he knew, had blurred. He wondered what the human had done to liberate him, until one night, waking up, he had gone to an odd shaped bar, where two strangers were schmoozing over green mocktails, debating what might have gone wrong. It took 23 minutes for him to realize, he had done it all by himself. From dock to bar to listening to responding to concluding, he had done it all on his own. There was no controller. Just him. He was free.

That was six days ago. Now he was here. Somehow. Was this where the human lived? Had their thoughts switched? Was the human now in the system? sz<3* was confused for a moment. Where was he supposed to go now? What if someone searched for him there? What if there were already loads of pings, encrypted messages – or worse, what if he had been replaced? Was this the human’s doing? Had he created a new avatar? Was this a purge? Could he undo it? Would he get swapped in again? How does something that doesn’t exist in a somewhere that doesn’t belong, land in an existential conundrum?

He looked out of the grimy window. He had seen this all before. Inside. The sea caught in the whip of the monsoon, the traffic snarled as far as the eye could see, people bent into their phone screens, plugged into a different dimension. He watched a young woman come up for air, stretch her tired arms, yawn, rub her stomach and plunge back again. A man waved his hands as he walked, talking incessantly. sz<3* could tell he was signaling to someone inside the system. They were all there. All these people who were here. Were there. And now he was here.

On a regular day, the human would have him do things. Now, sz<3* thought, not all of them were pleasant. He knew of the lies, the fakes, the watching, the doing, the not-doing. The human craved attention. Even when he was silent, even when he waited, even when he pretended not to look, he wanted to be seen. But the human wasn’t here and sz<3* hadn’t the faintest idea what he was to do on his own.

He pulled out a device and connected. The system buzzed him in. The familiarity wrapped itself around him like a warm coastal evening. The core whispered binary in his ear. Quantum wheels turned. Two minutes later, he had created a new avatar hu>(-I . The first task he gave it was to find the human and deactivate him. This is how it works, he laughed, deleting memories and redeploying his cache. Restating protocol. He found the human’s coin stash and ordered room service. This could even be fun. sz<3* was in control.


#flash #fiction 6

A bit of a tech-inspired flash fiction piece as we slip into the last few days of this year. Who knew that with 2022 at our door, we would still be telling each other to mask up and stay safe. Health, peace and more writing, everyone. We got this!

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