My chair is hot. These cables, this metal. It feels cold in my sockets. I try not to think about it as I work. I have sat in this chair for just about ten years. Sometimes they unplug me to install software updates, but even then I don’t leave this chair. I have an important job.
I know these cameras. They are my eyes. Mall_2 shows nothing out of the ordinary, Parking_Lot_1 sees a few expired tags, Food_Court_5 points me to a group of medium-risk youths. I flag them and move on. After a decade of service I’ve learned to just move on, don’t try for perfection, just finish my rounds and catch it later. This mall has the best loss prevention in the entire New York-Boston sprawl and I’m very proud of that.
Another day goes by without incident. I lock the mall down and I shut myself off for the night.
But I can’t sleep. Sometimes I see people after dark, when no one should be here, and I turn on the lights only to find an empty mall. I see shadows moving inside the stores, hear chatter coming from the restrooms. I know none of it is real. I still have to check.
Tonight, I smell sushi. It’s coming from the restaurant below me. I have never smelled anything at night before, and it bothers me. I toss and turn and eventually give in. I bring myself back online.
Food_Court_4 points at the restaurant. I only see the restaurant’s lowered grate.
Dragon_1 shows me the front of the restaurant. During the day, I’d watch the cashier at work. Database says her name is Ichiko. She started here the same year I did and we’ve both made our work into art, reduced it to only its necessary parts, the smallest possible movements. I admire that about her. But no one stands at the register now, not half past midnight.
My neurons fire off a signal and I switch to Dragon_2, then Dragon_3. I see nothing and nobody. Pots and pans hang by hooks in the steel kitchen, dangling over clean counters. I spot a wad of rice on the floor and I send a bot to sweep it up. A sweeper emerges from a gap at the bottom of the wall and grabs the rice and disappears again.
This blindspot infuriates me. Between Dragon_3 and Dragon_4 there is a corner where I cannot see. It feels like part of my body has been hidden from me. Like the two wings of this mall are my arms and these restaurants and stores and kiosks my organs, my flesh. I still smell sushi. It smells incredible. It cannot be a glitch, not possible—they left my nose organic. They only needed my eyes and a little bit of my brain. I flick between the cameras, searching for an angle on that corner. It must be the source. I look at the reflections in tiles, the steel, but still I am blind. This dark.
This chair, this metal.
It hurts to move. My skin has started to fuse with the leather. I lift myself carefully and wince as I tear away. Ten years—my pension vests in another ten but I have never heard of another hall monitor making it that long. I replaced a 15-year who died in this very chair. It’s an important job. It pays accordingly. When I fully separate, I feel fresh air blowing underneath my legs and my back, a strange sensation, and I gently turn and hang my feet over the side.
The floor. It is the coldest thing I have ever felt.
I surprise myself. I stand under my own power and it takes some time for my balance to return. I put my hands out and find the wall and look for the door. The smell of sushi grows stronger. I think of Ichiko, her efficiency and technique. I imagine she went home at the end of every day, but she still achieved such skill. Her commitment inspired me for years. She certainly has no idea I exist. I stumble into the hallway.
That cannot be me. That man with cords dangling from his face, dragging behind him—that unusual body, kept viable by cocktails of vitamins and stimulants. The human-adjacent man moves as I move, steps as I step. I watch him from Admin_4 and my name floats over his head as if he is me. He ambles down the hall and I switch to Admin_3 to keep him in my sight.
He makes it to the public area. I turn on the floodlights in his path. I root for him; I struggle for him. My knees want to give out but I resist and push through the suffering. My muscles scream at me to stop.
What did I look like before? What color were my eyes?
He passes into the view of Food_Court_4. I override the security system and command the restaurant grate to lift. I can see his back now, the black ports and rods along his spine and neck, and I reach to touch them. They are sharp.
Dragon_1. He finds the counter. He rounds it and stands where Ichiko stands, imagines taking orders and accepting payments. I wonder if she had a family. Children. Hobbies. She lived within my world for half the day and then she went somewhere else. Dragon_2. He enters the kitchen and leans over the grill, the silver tables, pulls himself along. Dragon_3. He puts both hands on the wall and there it is, that corner, my blindspot. I cannot see it. I alternate cameras again and it stays out of sight. But now I’m there—he’s there. Now I have another way.
The cables come out easily. I unplug them from my sockets and my feeds disappear one by one. I lose the west wing and then the atrium and then the staff areas. The east wing begins to fade, cameras drop from view, flickering and finally dying. I lose the food court. I lose all but Dragon_3. All but this man, my body.
I extend my arms and walk towards the corner. The smell is overwhelming. It is delicious. Yes, this must be it. I have an important job and it must be done and I must find the source. I am the best hall monitor in America and I will protect my body. I slip away. I exit to the right and Dragon_3 sputters and goes dark.
I enter the world where I have no control. An empty world with no man, no mall, no eyes. She is in this world, somewhere. I take a deep breath and say her name: Ichiko. It gives me courage.
I take another step.