This is set in (one of ) the world(s) of the Hidden Mall – Abby and Liv have been travelling through a series of multiverse malls, many of them abandoned. Actually, many Abby-and-Livs, Sandy-and-Vics have been travelling – this is a different Abby & Liv than those in the main story.
Abby glared at the fountain.
This was the prettiest mall they had found yet. This was the nicest mall they had found – empty, at least – in all of their explorations. But something about it was also just, well, sterile.
There were no food courts. There were no trees, not even fake ones, no plantings, no stores selling anything edible – even the clothing was stiff and formal and so very sterile.
There were fish in the fountains, though. There were fish in this biggest fountain especially, big ones, koi maybe, darting in and out of the very symmetrical, very smooth sculptures which obscured the bottom of the fountain, leaving it in shadows.
So Abby had figured out a fishing pole and line with various things stolen from various stores, and she had sat down here with her hook and she had, well.
And so far she had gotten nothing.
The fish had sniffed at her bait, but none of them had bitten. One of them had gone so far as to bat at her line, playing with it.
“They are playing with me,” she complained.
“They are probably just curious. They don’t seem very hungry, though. Who do you think feeds them?” Liv, who hadn’t really believed there was nothing to eat here, had been checking the stores one by one. Now she was sitting next to Abby, watching the fish not bite at the line.
“Who – shit. I haven’t seen anything like fish food, have you? I mean anything that even resembles fish food?”
“I haven’t seen so much as anything that could feed a bacterium, much less a fish.” Liv threw up her hands. “We can’t stay here. It sucks, because it’s nice. I mean, it’s pretty, there’s no monsters, there’s nothing trying to kill us. You can’t even talk to this mall – I tried. I did.”
“You… what?” Abby stared at Liv. “You talked to the mall?”
“Oh, uh. Remember when we ran into that Abby-Liv-Sandy group a couple malls back? When you were showering, Sandy told me that they’d started talking to the malls. Usually they go into the security room, and the malls – well, they don’t always talk back, but sometimes they say something. And a lot of times, even if they don’t say anything, they give some sort of signal.
So this one, this one. There was nothing at all. Like, there was a security room, but there was no feel to it at all. Um, I’m not making any sense at all, am I?”
“I sort of get it.” Abby glanced at the line. There was a very big fish swimming around it, but it wasn’t even trying to bite it. “It felt sterile, like nobody had ever really lived here, right? I mean… shopped here. Been here. This whole place feels like it was built for robots just pretending to be human – if they’re just pretending, they probably don’t need security.”
“We’ve seen robots, though, and they were – I mean, they were creepy, but they were more or less still people. People-like,” Liv argued.
“Well.. Yeah.” Abby sighed. “Okay, so not robots. I don’t know. Some sort of – oh, like those things in the movies, the 1950’s World of Tomorrow sort of places? Maybe this is the Mall of Tomorrow- Hey!”
The fish had bitten her hook and was swimming rapidly down into the crevices at the bottom of the fountain. Abby braced herself and pulled. Liv grabbed onto the pole, too, and both of them pulled together.
They hauled with all of their shared strength until the fish came out of the water, flopping and splashing and fighting them every inch of the way, trying to tangle itself up in the sculptures at the bottom of the pond.
“Should any fish be this smart?” Abby muttered. “I mean, seriously, are they supposed to use strategy?”
“I don’t know.” Liv gave one final yank backwards, and they both went tumbling onto their backs, the fish landing on top of them, flopping wetly and giving off little squeaks.
No, not squeaks. Beeps. Abby grabbed the thing with both hands.
Its scales felt real. Its movements felt real. It looked real. But when she looked deep into its little fishy eye, she could see an LED blinking.
She threw the fish back into the water.
“I hate this place,” she muttered. “Let’s find a door before it decides we’re too alive or something.”
In the water, the fish was already sending signals to the cleaning crew.
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