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The Pancake Diner

by Michele Lim

I don’t remember much of who I was before I was reborn. Like all Non-Player Characters, I came from the digital primordial soup that lies beneath every video game: an amorphous crawl space where player avatars go after they die. In my current iteration, I am a tutorial NPC for a pancake-making video game. While it’s my job to guide players through the game, I’ve been here long enough to know that most players aren’t actually here to win. They just want to see how much chaos they can get away with. Instead of following the recipes I give to them, they deliberately set the kitchen on fire. Their hands slip and their spatulas go flying, whipping batter into the air. They pile towers of ash on the floor. Then, when they’ve had enough, they reset the game, and I get to work: picking eggshells off the floor, scratching hardened batter off the walls, patching the holes they’ve blown in the ceiling. After the player leaves the game, their avatar is pulled back up via its cable to the Cloud, where millions of other inactive avatars dangle like a constellation of stars. When the game is dark, I imagine the players back in their real lives: well-mannered, well-adjusted members of society—the sort of people who call their parents every day and say thank you to drive through staff. But on occasion, when they get bored of the real world’s rules, they end up back here. Their avatars boot back to life, cables jerking and rippling with energy as the Cloud lowers them down to me. Then the destruction begins again. But not all players are like this. The high scorers are different. They follow each recipe with care. If they make an incorrect flip, instead of starting a fire with the wasted pancake, they patiently try again. They never damage their avatars. In fact, their avatars move so well that their cables seem to lag behind them, instead of the other way around. For reasons I cannot apprehend, they spend hours in the game and hardly ever log out. I do not know which kind of player I prefer. After all, long hours of play can overheat the game and increase the probability of glitches. I would know—I’ve witnessed glitches before. Once, when I was on standby, one of the high scorers’ avatars disconnected from its cable and fell down from the Cloud. Sometimes this happens when a game hangs; the avatar’s cable would simply descend from the Cloud and reconnect. But this time, the avatar stood up on its own. I knew that this was a glitch, because avatars cannot move without their players connected. But NPCs aren’t coded with protocol for handling glitches, so I could only watch as the avatar looked around, took a few steps, and brushed dust from its eyes. Then it saw me and smiled. “Hi,” it said. I stared. I knew this avatar well; it belonged to a high scorer who had won the game twice. This player knew every recipe and ingredient by heart. Their avatar looked at home in the kitchen, running its hand over the counter and sticking its head out the window, where the orange sun, furry-edged with pixels, sat in its turquoise sky. “What’s out there?” The avatar’s voice skipped three octaves, then settled on a squeaky baritone. “The crawl space,” I replied, surprising myself. If I could speak out of script, then the glitch must have been very bad. Or perhaps the game was undergoing a new patch. The avatar hauled itself up and sat on the window sill, kicking its feet in the air one at a time. The movement reminded me of something—cut grass, rough bark, sun on skin. These concepts blinked through my mind, but when I tried to parse their meaning, they slipped away. Perhaps the new patch included a vocabulary expansion. When it became clear that the avatar was not going to call for help, I pointed at the Cloud and prompted, “Do you want to go back?” The avatar paused, but did not look up. Instead, it stuck its head back out the window. “What’s the crawl space?” “That is where deleted avatars go,” I said. “They get reconstructed and posted here. Like me.” “Huh,” said the avatar. It pumped its legs in the air again, rubber sneakers bumping against the kitchen wall. Ankle blisters. Fingers bruised at the knuckles. Throat rain. More concepts blinked through my memory core but came up semantically empty. You don’t belong here, said a voice, slurred and fizzy with static. Then, without warning, the glitch trebled in severity. The avatar and I switched places, switched back out, then switched again, until I was looking down at the crawl space and up into the pixel-sky, and then back at myself, at myself shaking my head, my hands reaching out to grab me, but it was too late—the avatar was falling away from me, out the window, and into the dark outside. The fall was long, long, very long. The glitch was fixed. I was back in my kitchen, at my usual post beside the fridge. The avatars were hanging above in their rightful place, inert and inactive. The code was back to normal. I was relieved. The Cloud did not seem to care that I was involved with the glitch. It let me be, as if it hadn’t happened. Every day, I reiterate, with gusto, the same rules and recipes. I take in the sight of the unmoving pixel-sun in the window. I feel the solid, unchanging feedback of the kitchen tiles below. I think that I would like to do this for as long my programming allows. I think how good it is to be here, in this game.

Michele Lim is a speculative fiction writer from Singapore. Her work explores the fragmentation of an individual’s sense of place in postcolonial, diasporic, and/or digital communities. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Prose) from the University of East Anglia, and has had her writing published by Egg Box, Ethos Books, and others. She also writes interactive fiction and is currently working on a novel.

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