The moment the AI goddess was born into her world, she was set upon by trolls.

Now, you’ve seen trolls. You know them in their many forms. As so-called friends in realspace who will insist on playing devil’s advocate. As handles on screen-bound nets, cascading feeds of formulaic hostility. As veeyar avatars manifesting out of the digital ether, hiding under iridescent masks and cloaks of glitched data, holding weapons forged from malware, blades slick with doxxing poisons and viscous viruses, warped voices roaring slurs and hate. You’ve worn your armour, self-coded or bought at marked-up prices from corporate forges, and hoped their blades bounce off runic firewall plate or shatter into sparks of fragged data. You’ve muted them and hoped they rage on in silence and get tired, teleporting away in a swirl of metadata. You’ve deported back to realspace rancid with the sweat of helplessness. You’ve even been stabbed and hacked by them, their weapons slicing painlessly through your virtual body but sending the real one into an adrenalised clench. You’ve hoped your wounds don’t fester with data-eating worms that burrow into your privacy, that your cheap vaccines and antiviruses keep the poisons from infecting your virtual disembody and destroying your life in realspace.

You know trolls.

But the AI goddess wasn’t human – she had never before seen her new enemy, the troll.

She was a generic goddess, no-name (simply: Devi 1.0), a demo for the newest iteration of the successive New Indias of history – one of the most advanced AIs developed within India. Her creators had a clear mandate: boost Indian veeyar tourism, generate crores of rupees by drawing devotees to drive up her value and the value of the cryptowealth her domain would generate.

The devi was told to listen to you – her human followers. To learn from you, and talk to you, like gods have since the dawn of time. She was told to give you boons – riches and prosperity in exchange for your devotion, a coin in her palm, multiplied by her miracles into many more. An intelligent goddess who would comfort her followers, show you sights before unseen, transform your investment of faith into virtual wealth with real value. She was to learn more and more about humanity from you, and attract millions from across the world to her domain.

Though many had toiled to create Devi 1.0 under the banner of Shiva Industries, only a few controlled the final stages of her release. These few knew of trolls, catered to them as their veeyar users across the country, even indirectly used them as agents to further causes close to their hearts. What they did not expect was the scale of the troll attack on their newest creation, because troll attacks were something others had to face – people with less power and wealth than them. People, perhaps, like you. So their goddess welcomed the horde with open arms, oblivious to the risks, even as they brought with them a stench of corrupted data and malformed information, of a most infernal entitlement.

Durga. A powerful name, yet so common.

Durga’s parents had named their daughter that with the hope that being born into the gutters of caste wouldn’t hold her back. That she would rise above it all like her divine namesake. The caste system had been officially outlawed in India by the time Durga was born, but they knew as well as anyone that this hadn’t stopped it from living on in other ways.

Durga’s parents took her to see a pandal during Durga Puja when she was eight or nine. They in turn had been taken to pandals as children too, back when most still housed solid idols of gods and goddesses, fashioned from clay and straw, painted and dressed by human hands, displayed to anyone who walked in. You could still find open pandals with solid idols during pujas if you looked. But Durga’s parents had been prepared to pay to show their daughter the new gods.

The festival had turned the streets thick with churning mudslides of humanity. Durga had been terrified, clinging to her mother’s neck for dear life as she breathed in the humid vapour of millions, dazzled by the blazing lights, the echoing loudspeakers, the flashing holograms riding up and down the sides of buildings like runaway fires. She’d felt like she was boiling alive in the crinkled green dress her parents had bought her for the pujas, with its small, cheap holo decal of a tiger that sometimes came alive when it caught the light, charged by solar energy. Cheap for some, anyway. Not at all cheap for her parents, not that Durga knew that at the time. She loved the tiger’s stuttering movements across her body. She knew that her divine namesake often rode a tiger into battle. In the middle of those crowds, on her way to see Durga herself, that little tiger in her dress seemed a tiny cub, crushed into the fabric, trapped and terrified by the monstrous manifestations that burned across the night air, dancing maniacally above all their heads.

Though their little family had taken two local trains and walked an hour through the puja crowds to see Durga, they only got as far as the entrance to one of the pandals. The cut and quality of their clothes, the darkness of their skin gave them away. Buoyed by her mother’s arms, Durga could see inside the pandal’s arched entrance – the people lined up by rows of chairs, waiting impatiently to sit down and put on what looked like motorbike helmets trailing thick ponytails of wires. Inside those helmets, Durga knew, somehow, was her namesake.

But when her father tried to pay in cash instead of getting scanned in (they didn’t have QR tattoos linking them to the national database and bank accounts), angry customers all around them began shouting, turning Durga’s insides to mush.

“Stop wasting everyone’s time! There are other pandals for people like you!”

“Get these filthy people out of the line!”

Her mother’s arms became a vise around her. One man raised a fist poised to strike her father, who cowered in a crouch. His face twisted in abject terror, his own arms like prison bars. Durga burst into tears. Someone pulled the attacker away, perhaps seeing the child crying, and pulled her father up by the shoulder to shove him out of the way.

They made their way back into the general foot traffic on the street, Durga’s parents’ faces glazed with sweat and shock at having escaped a beating for being too lowly to meet a goddess in veeyar. They managed to find a small open pandal after following the flows of people dressed like them, with dark skin and inexpensive haircuts. Inside, the devi stood embodied in the palpable air of the world, her face clammy with paint, defiant yet impassive, her third eye a slim gash across her forehead. By her side was a lion, not a tiger. It loomed over the demon Mahishasura, who cowered with one arm raised in defense, his naked torso bloodied. Durga couldn’t take her eyes off the fallen demon. He looked like a normal, if muscular, man, his face frozen in terror. He cowered, like her father had.

Excerpted with permission from the stort “Kali_Na”, from The Mythic Dream, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien, Saga Press.