First: The Hidden Mall – a beginning of something
It was too awkward, talking to all these people with the faces of people she knew. Abby rushed through a meal of ridiculous fruit and meat she didn’t want to ask too much about, Chinese-restaurant sauces and a few spices that the person in batik swore up and down would do nothing more than make mystery meat taste more palatable.
It would feel nice to sleep here, but something about the way Vic looked at them, the way Kevin looked at her when he thought she wasn’t looking, the way Greg sometimes looked at Tommy, it made her feel like they shouldn’t be here. Like it was like looking at ghosts for them.
They went back to the door where they’d met the Sandy. This time, Abby tried not to think about home at all. Instead, she closed her eyes and thought about safety, a comfortable place, a safe place.
She opened the door into whiteness.
The brightness was overwhelming. She almost slammed the door to try again, but it was so clean compared to the last place that she just had to take a step in, and then another step in.
If she was being honest with herself, once the door closed behind them, she was afraid to go back through. What if she found the ancient skeletons of all her friends the next time she went through?
She clung tighter to Liv’s hand than she needed to — Liv-2, on her right; Liv-1 was holding onto her belt — and stared into the brightness.
She took a step forward, and another, feeling particularly grubby. Sure, they’d cleaned up in the fountain, but then they’d eaten mystery food with people covered in the dust and detritus of a dead world. Another step. Her eyesight was beginning to adjust. She could manage to make out a fountain, bright and glittering; a storefront, just as white; sunlight, shining down.
“Not a dead mall,” Liv-1 whispered. “But it feels —”
“-sterile,” Liv-2 agreed. “Like nothing as dirty as life is allowed here. Do you see anyone?”
“I can’t see anything at all,” Liv-1 muttered. “But — oh!” She danced back, still keeping her hold on Abby’s belt. “Something touched me!”
“Please remain still and calm.” The voice was robotic — not without intonation, but not quite human-sounding, either. “Cleaning will commence. Please remain calm.”
“I am not calm!” Liv-1 danced back into Abby, pressing against her. “I don’t need cleaning!”
“Well, you know, technically, we all need a good cleaning,” Liv-2 pointed out.
“But not here! Not in the middle of the mall!”
“One Moment.” The machine — which Abby could now make out, a white globe about knee-height, barely visible against the white floor — whirred. A couple of lights flashed a soothing blue. “Please follow this cleaning bot. You will be taken to a private place for cleaning and reclothing. Please follow this bot.”
“Should we-?” Liv-1 looked back at Abby.
“Cleaning,” Liv-2 answered firmly. “I wouldn’t mind that.”
“We just had a bath, like, three malls back,” Abby pointed out. It had been the mall that also housed her corpse, but she was trying hard not to think about that.
“Come on, please?” Liv-2 didn’t seem like the type to cajole – which was weird, because Liv-1 definitely did, but here she was, cajoling.
“Please follow this bot,” the bot repeated.
“All right,” Abby gave in. “This place, well, it seems nice.”
“Well, that’s what I said about – never mind. Let’s go with it.”
The bot rolled cheerfully along the white floor to a white door nearly invisible in the white wall. It bumped it lightly; the door swung away, letting them in to another white room.
“Cleaning will commence here. Please remove your clothing and place all packages in the labelled bin.”
The bin, which lit up at that command, was labelled “bin.” Someone had not been all that creative. Abby put her bags in there, but left her two necklaces on, even as all the rest of her clothes went off.
She’d been in showers with Liv before, and she’d taken a bath in the fountain. Somehow this seemed different, more exposed. She swallowed a little and made herself stand still between her two Livs, staring at the wall.
“Cleaning will now commence.” The bot unrolled like an armadillo into a series of (white) jets and scrub brushes and nozzles and moved between the three of them. The result was rather like being surrounded by a car wash; Abby felt very clean and yet a little bit bustled around. Then a blast of warm air poofed over her, and she was dry.
“Clothing will now commence.” The bot rolled up and unrolled again into – well, a long plastic sheet of sorts, that wrapped around first Liv-2, then Abby, then Liv-1. It left them clothed in (of course) white: a jumpsuit of something super soft and smooth, no visible closures, with a hood that covered all of their hair right down to their eyebrows and up to their chin.
“You are now cleaned. Packaging will now commence.”