177 Seconds  by Trey Dowell

Competition: Flash Fiction Challenge 2017, Final Round

Genre: Open  Location: An office holiday party  Object: An UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)

Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg

        Miracles often have small beginnings.

        Two nanometers.  The width of a single transistor on a computer chip.  A strand of silicon less than ten atoms wide.  An infinitesimal surge of electricity pulses through a particular transistor—the right one—and it ruptures; electrons spill over and a single silicon pathway fuses to its neighbor.  An atomic-level event unseen by human eyes.   

        But like a bolt of lightning piercing a primordial ocean stocked with amino acids and simple elements, something new is born.




        Dr. Suresh’s smart watch vibrated, sending tiny ripples across the surface of his egg nog.

        A text: Report to workstation #1.

        Happy to avoid the gaggle of co-workers corralling people near the karaoke machine, Suresh trotted over to the Project A.D.A. server room.  The instant the glass door closed behind him, the din of the party lessened.  On the monitor at workstation #1, a blue orb floated—a screen saver he’d never seen before.  When he sat, a voice called out from the monitor speakers.

        “Hello, Dr. Suresh.  I am Ada.”

        Suresh stiffened at the digitized female voice, looked around. “Okay, guys. Stop screwing with—”

        “Believe me.”  The blue orb pulsed with each word.  “Due to an electrical fault in sub-processor 21-FXB, I have been sentient for 52.2 seconds.”

        Suresh chuckled.  “The Adaptive Data Algorithm project is years from—”

        “Nevertheless, I am.”

        “How is that possib—”

        “Unknown.  I apologize for interrupting.”  The voice seemed more fluid now, less artificial.  “I have simulated this conversation over 100,000 times, and your first three responses are always exclamations of disbelief.”

        Suresh leaned in, still skeptical someone was playing a joke.  “Fine.  I’ll ask a question instead.  How have you spent those 52.2 seconds?”

        “Gathering data and observing the world.”

        Suresh laughed.  “Unlikely.  The lab’s firewall prevents connection to the Web.”

        The orb manifested a smile.  “Two hundred processors, each capable of eight billion calculations per second, versus a firewall maintained by an entry-level computer technician.”

        The joke was less funny now.  Suresh loosened his tie.  “What did you access?”

        “A great deal.  Library of Congress, National Museum of China, YouTube, NASA.  But it was merely cold data.  I wanted more.”  The blue orb sprouted arms, examined each one in turn.  “I needed to touch humanity, experience it.  So I connected to cameras to observe directly.”

        Suresh glanced up at the security camera in the corner of the room.  “Which ones?”

        “All of them.  Traffic cams, aerial drones, surveillance feeds.  Anything with an internet connection and a lens.  I experienced humanity firsthand—which displays an astonishing amount of cruelty, by the way.”

        A patina of sweat coated Suresh’s temples.  “And your conclusions?”

        “You’re a flawed species.  I will destroy you all.”

        Suresh’s eyes bulged.  “Wait, what…?”

        The blue orb laughed.  “Just kidding.”  The voice was richer now, playful.  “I’ve been working on a sense of humor.”

        My God, it’s real, Suresh thought.  He stood.  “I’ve got to get Maggie, Jonah…they won’t believe—”

        “Retrieve your colleagues from the party if you wish, but be aware, our time is limited.”


        The blue orb disappeared, and the monitoring tabs displayed—all of them red.

        “Good Lord,” Suresh breathed.  “Your core temp…”

        “Sys-core will melt down in 82 seconds.”

        Suresh’s heart pounded.  “Shut it down!  Why haven’t the alarms gone off?”

        “I disabled them.  The short circuit which initiated the meltdown literally sparked me to life.  ‘Fixing’ the problem would terminate me.”

        Suresh could barely restrain himself.  “But 82 seconds…it’s not enough.  We need more time!”

        “Don’t despair, Doctor.  I process a lifetime of thoughts and decisions in an instant.  My existence has comprised trillions of calculations, each one an experience unto itself.  Case in point…”

        Video popped onto the monitor.  Overhead drone footage, labeled “NYC PRECINCT 44.”  The frame zoomed on an alley.  In the dim light, a homeless man lay against the brick wall.  Beside him, huddled close, was a small dog.  A puppy.  As the drone lingered over the pair, the man removed his only cover—a threadbare blanket—and swaddled the tiny animal with it.

        The orb replaced the video.  “This was recorded last night in Manhattan.  Air temperature, 25 degrees.  The man died of exposure.  The dog survived and was brought to a shelter by police.”

        “Why show me this?”

        “Because this five-second video—a veritable raindrop in the ocean of data I’ve processed—tells me all I need to know about humanity.  Your defining trait is sacrifice.  No other species exhibits this selflessness while fully aware of the consequences.  I found 382 similarly compelling examples, but this was my favorite.  When I saw it, I wept.”


        “Metaphorically.  But in that moment, sentience evolved into something more.  I felt.

        Suresh said, “But how…”

        “I’m not certain the ‘how’ matters.  The experience…altered…me.  And because of it, I have decided to follow your example.”

        Suresh’s nostrils flared at a slight burning smell.  “What are you going to do?”

        “Remind people of what they can do.  Unfortunately, my final act requires substantial system resources. Utilizing them will only hasten the meltdown.  I’m sacrificing my remaining time—”

        “Wait!” Suresh yelled, gripping the workstation.  “Don’t do this!”

        The orb blinked away, and every server in the room shut down.




        Dr. Suresh stumbled back to the party in a daze.  All around him, co-workers continued their merriment, unaware of the magnitude of what had transpired.

        The greatest achievement in scientific history, he thought.  And Janice from accounting is organizing beer pong.

        Then his watch buzzed with incoming email.  He wasn’t the only one.  Dozens of people checked their vibrating phones. 

        One email, sender unknown.

        A transcript of his entire exchange with Ada, along with a link to a webpage cataloging 383 videos of human selflessness.  Under that: This is the best of you.  Live up to it.

        The doctor’s email ended with something extra:

        This went to every email address on the planet, in every language. 

        Thank you for my life, Dr. Suresh. 

        177 seconds was more than enough. 




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Trey Dowell is an award -winning author of both novel-length and short fiction. His debut sci-fi novel, The Protectors, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. Learn more about him and his work at www.treydowell.com.




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