First: The Hidden Mall – a beginning of something
“Excuse me?” Abby took a step backwards, reaching for her friends. “Packaging? I don’t want to be wrapped up any further than I already am, thank you.”
“You will need face masks. Packaging will now commence.”
A whirr and a soft creaking noise came from the bin where their bags had been. A few more sounds commenced – ripping, some shaking, and something that sounded like sucking air through a straw.
Then three identical white bags popped out. They looked clean, they looked like they had everything in them, and they looked more comfortable than the back packs they’d had.
Each of them took one. The bot, now a sphere again, whirred at them one more time. “Please take one face mask each and install on face. Please take one face mask each…”
A tray popped out of the sphere’s side. They took one face mask each and, after a moment, figured out how to put them on. They were surprisingly comfortable, and now the three of them were nearly anonymous.
“This is weird.” Liv-probably-1’s voice came out clearer than it ought to have, but also somehow anonymized. “Like, we got all our individuality pulled away.”
“On the plus side,” the other Liv pointed out, “we’re clean. Now if only we’d been fed.”
“The food depot is out this door and to the left. Please follow the blue line.” The bot was far too helpful. “You have been cleaned. You may now pursue food.”
“Do we have to chase it?” Liv-probably-2 muttered. “Because I’m not all that hungry, but I might still run something down.”
“Please follow the blue line towards food,” the bot repeated.
“Following,” Abby agreed. She took both Liv’s hands. If she lost them here, she was never going to be able to pick them out of a crowd.
One of the Lizs glanced sidelong at her. “This is getting to be a habit.”
“We’re anonymous like this. I don’t want to lose you. I— I don’t want to use you,” she repeated.
“Please follow the blue line towards food,” the bot repeated again.
“I think it’s getting irritated with us,” the other Liv murmured. “Let’s go.”
The blue line was glowing under their feet. They started walking that way, speeding up as they went.
As the blue line grew darker under their feet, they started to see other people — or, at least, other white forms. Abby was still thinking of the place with the plastic people, and how fake everyone had been.
People here, though, looked like they were chatting, talking, interacting. There were gestures and some rather tinny-sounding laughs, one screech that even the vocal anonymizer couldn’t completely neutralize.
“How do you think they eat? We eat?” Liv-1 – Abby thought – sounded fascinated. She sounded more and more like her old self, too.
“Good question,” Liv-2 muttered. “I mean, I don’t see anyone – oh. Oh, ick.” She gestured ahead.
There were tables, like a normal food court. There were people – well, white-clothed figures – sitting at the tables. They all had cups of some sort of… well, hard to tell, because the cups were opaque white too. But many of them had inserted a straw into their face mask.
“That’s. That’s, um.” Liv-1 looked pale. “Soylent Green?”
“No, those were pills.” Abby squeezed her hand, squeezed both Livs hands for good measure. “Let’s try it, at least.”
There was a little stall. It had a tall cylindrical figure with eyes, much like the cleaning-bot that had followed them around. “Please provide wrist band for food service.”
None of them had wrist bands. Abby touched the amulets under her suit. Maybe-
“Please provide wrist band for – ABERRANT. ABERRANT.” The blue glow of the bot’s “vision” had landed on the place Abby had touched, seeming to see her amulets under her clothing. “ABERRANT!!”