Author’s Note: This weird little Science Fiction story first appeared in the Tales of Clickbait, Volume 1 anthology, but I have permission from the editor to post it on my site as well! Since I was a child, I’ve been deeply intrigued by shopping malls and the culture that surrounds them–and in recent years, the “dead mall” phenomenon that’s sweeping across America, especially in the wake of COVID-19. This story was deeply influenced by this lifelong fascination.
Across the bleak and infinite vacua of space, a million years after humanity found an answer to the meaning of life and transcended their mortal shells, a Model #349-9 Omegatype sat in the food court of the Palisades Mega Mallship contemplating a very human problem:
Where will you go when you’ve reached the end, when you’re already living in society’s indisputable version of heaven, but each passing moment feels like its own little slice of hell? He scrawled onto a wadded-up napkin with the pen attachment of his black-gloved fingertip. Really, the napkins were all for show, along with the entire food court—after all, the Omegatypes were organ-void metal shells that ran on volts instead of calories. But this neon aggregate of pastel booths and polished marble tables—and really, the entire Mallship—were a quirky but well-loved anachronism, a testament to the long-vaporized ghost of Earth that humanity (not just the electrical impulses that haunted these hollow shells, like some of the skeptics whispered) had persevered in some way.
Zeradu was one of these skeptics, and always had been, even though he didn’t know how to put it into words outside from scrawling angsty notes onto a napkin. He never thought of himself as much of a poet, and as usual, he’d already given up. His oblong black expression screen went completely blank with boredom once again as he watched the unmoving purple clock tacked onto the towering pillar to his left—a constant reminder that he had all the time in the world to try again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day aft . . .
“No,” he sighed, knowing it probably sounded weird to talk out loud to himself, but then quickly realizing that no one was listening anyway. “Not this again.”
Just thinking of the concept of time anymore made his visor feel like it was going to crack. The clocks, like the napkins, were a hollow prop too: A glimmer of comfort from a forgotten time that none of the Omegatypes had ever even known—a kitschy echo of the last humans’ nostalgia before they sealed themselves away in these metalloid coffins forever and set off into the unknown, leaving everything but the memories behind.
The neon lights of the “Hot Pizza” signs flickered weirdly off the visors of all the strangers, seeming to meander in tune with the mournful synth music that was perpetually blaring over the loudspeakers. Zeradu never really bothered talking to any of them, even though he’d shared this ship with them for the past ten thousand years—no, it must have been twenty by now. The last time he’d bothered, none of them could remember why they were here or who they were before, either. So what was the point? They were nothing but props, really: Not so different from ferns swaying gently in oversized pots on the walls, or the circus animals spinning in blind, bleak perpetuity on the carousel.
If this is transcendence, if this really is a ‘better place’, then I’d rather . . . “No,” he muttered, crossing it all out manically, then crumpling up the napkin and tossing it onto the pink and white tiles of the floor. This one belongs to the cleaning crew now, he decided. That was enough writing for today. He’d have tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. It was almost time to go back to his cabin, a dressing room in the hollowed-out belly of what they used to call a “department store” back on Earth. He could only take the “Mobile Phone Repair” light strip banner cycling through a couple thousand times before he could feel the circuits in his chest tightening. . .
For some reason, it was all really getting to him today: Well, it did every day, but today was ten times worse than usual, for a reason he couldn’t quite pinpoint but would soon understand.
It was so bad that he did something he hadn’t done in at least twenty thousand years.
He turned to the Omega at the next booth over, who was pretending to sip soda from a disposable plastic cup, and buzzed:
“Do you really think there are monsters out there?” It didn’t look like it, when they whizzed over the theme park kingdom worlds, or even the factory subsystems on the outskirts of the usual route. “Or is it all some kind of sham to keep us locked up? Complacent?”
He’d suspected it for a long time, but to speak ill of the Captain—much less the parent company of the Palisades Mega Mallship—was nothing short of high treason, so most days he’d kept his musings to crumpled up napkins or even the walls of his ‘cabin’ in the dead of night.
The other Omega’s polished, pink exoskeleton audibly crunched as her entire body went rigid. The once-blank screen of her visor was now alight with a vividly-flashing slurry of confusion, judgment, and maybe even fear. Zeradu sighed again, not sure why he would have expected anything else. He was about to apologize and get up and walk away, but the dreamy synth waves came to a grinding halt, and the Captain’s voice ricocheted gratingly off the walls of his consciousness, piercing through the jagged emptiness between his circuits, filling him with the same disdain as usual:
“Greetings, fellow shoppers! Have I got a deal for you today! Can you believe we’ll be seeing the Perseus XVI System from the Northwest Food Court Observation deck for an entire three hours today? We only cruise through this part of the spiral arm once every six hundred years, so don’t pass up the chance to drink it all in!”
Zeradu’s visor flickered with cold, static disappointment every time that mysterious voice blasted down over the loudspeakers. No matter where he was on the ship, there was no escape: At least twice an hour, the captain was shilling his latest “bargain views,” or bragging about some war story that took place a hundred parsecs from the nearest station, or even trying to talk them into eating the sad excuses for “food” that all the countless courts around the ship had to offer.
He’d been waiting for a docking announcement for the past ten thousand years, but of course, it never came: It was only endless, constant babbling, rubbing it in his own face that he’d been stuck on that ship for as long as he could remember and would be stuck on it long after all the glitzy casino stations and behemoth resort worlds they endlessly passed by had disintegrated into dust—at this point, he’d rather chance it out there with the monsters.
One of these days, I’m going to find a hole in his security, and smash his stupid loudspeaker so he can’t cry out for help, and demand to see all the ship’s records—all my records, too. Zeradu thought to himself as the captain continued to endlessly rattle off the movie options for Cinema Deck 3B. I’m going to find out who he is, why he’s doing this, and make him—
But his thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a deafening, dissonant roar that violently shook the entire ship. The merry-go-round came to a grinding halt, the music died a slow and backwards death as it faded into audial oblivion, and the once-obnoxiously-bright food court was now a pitch-black pit of shrieking and chaos.
“Huh? Maybe someone else got to him first,” Zeradu exclaimed to no one, a genuine glimmer of amusement flickering across his visor for the first time since he heard some old rumor about how the ship’s thrusters were getting old, and in another five hundred years it may have to be permanently decommissioned.
“30,000 years! 300 centuries! The last outage of this scale was 300 centuries ago!” Someone wailed with despair from far away. Zeradu wasn’t even sure how he was able to make out the details of what they were saying, among the cacophony of screaming and crashing that was quickly overtaking the entire court. Omegas were getting up from their tables and buzzing around, using the illumination settings on their visors to avoid crashing into each other as they poured back towards their cabins, or simply ran around waiting for someone to tell them what to do.
The food court was a chaotic, rumbling warzone of upturned booths and shattered glass, and the entire ship roiled and toiled as the stabilizers fought to keep everyone from becoming piles of smashed circuits in the corners from the sudden drop in centripetal force. “The emergency generators should be kicking on any minute!” A different voice shrieked, but Zeradu hoped not: He’d been dreaming of those ugly mock-fast-food flashing signs fizzling out for centuries, after all, and it would be a shame to get nothing more than a five-minute break when his dream had finally come true.
“Are you alright?!” A familiar voice beeped from behind him, and he turned around to find the girl with the pink exoskeleton he’d hassled only moments ago—it felt like a thousand years by now, with the rage of whatever in Earth’s memory they’d crashed into still rumbling through the entire ship.
“Never been better,” Zeradu beeped, doubting his own words for a second, trying to figure out if he really meant it or he was just in shock. He sensed a truly riveting conclusion only seconds away, but then, of course:
“Everyone, stay calm!” The Captain’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker with more than a hint of panic. “This is nothing but a minor technical difficulty! The experimental generators will be kicking on any moment, and we’ll be back to shopping by the end of the hour!”
As if in some kind of twisted prophecy, a dull red light burned to life from between the checkered tiles, and along the rim where the walls met the floor. The eerie, hypnotizing glow did little to calm the building panic of the crowd, and someone far away shouted, “Tell us what’s going on already! We deserve to know!”
“Have we been taken hostage?!” Someone shouted in terror, and the pink unit at Zeradu’s side began to spin around wildly with panic. Almost automatically, he found himself reaching a comforting hand to her arm, holding her back.
Someone else screamed, “I knew the monsters would get us eventually! I knew it! We’ve been eaten!”
That suggestion seemed to be even less popular with the crowd, which was now emitting a wild, collective buzz of anxiety that the Captain could surely pick up on through his receivers.
“All right, everyone, calm down, calm down! We’re already in touch with a disaster recovery team on the out—oops, I wasn’t supposed to say—Anyways, we’re going to be back on track in a jiffy, so in the meantime, please return to your cabins in an orderly fashion and prepare for the sale of your lives when all this is over to celebrate!”
“So much for a ‘sham to keep us all locked up,’ right?” His companion demanded, the joints of her arms trembling violently, as if they needed to be oiled. What an odd feature for their long-dead human creators to have programmed into their exoskeletons, Zeradu marveled—the pointless mockery of fear.
“Hey, I was half right, wasn’t I?” Zeradu teased, realizing his hand was still on her arm and quickly jerking it away. “They’re still refusing to tell us what happened, where we’re going, or even if we’re in danger, so—”
“I KNEW THOSE THRUSTERS WERE GOING TO GO NUCLEAR BEFORE THE CENTURY WAS THROUGH! I KNEW IT!” Shrieked an Omega with an orange exoskeleton, tearing through the rubble with her strobe lights blaring.
Cocking his head, Zeradu returned his attention to his new friend and said, “See? You’re doing a lot better than some people, uh . . .”
“Carozine,” she replied, filling in the awkward pause where her name should have been. “What about you?”
“Zeradu. At least, that’s what they started calling me when I woke up in this place. I don’t know what my real name was before.”
“Me neither . . .” Carozine replied, still beeping nervously, but not on the verge of panic like before. “Sometimes, I kind of wish I did.” Her visor swiveled toward the ruins of the mobile phone store, and she shuddered violently, muttering, “This whole mall kind of reminds me of something, but I’m not sure what. I’ve never been able to figure it out, but believe me, I’ve tried.”
There was a long, long pause as Zeradu tilted back his visor, staring up at the ghastly blackness of the domed ceiling where stars should have been. Maybe we really have been eaten, he thought to himself. Or maybe we finally got sucked into a black hole, and these are the last few seconds before we become one with the event horizon, stretched agonizingly in both directions for what feels like a thousand years. “Should have written that one on the napkin . . .”
“What?” Carozine asked, and it was her turn to tilt her head in confusion.
“Nothing, nothing . . .” Zeradu reassured her, a little embarrassed that he’d said it out loud. But then, he cast one last glance up to that blank and gaping void far above them, and found himself muttering, “Well, don’t you want to find out what it reminds you of, Carozine? Don’t you ever wonder what all of us are doing here? Why all this just seems to go and on and on and . . .”
“Well, sort of,” she interrupted, taking the bait far more easily than she had the first time. “I mean, when you think about it, it’s really all kind of weird.”
“Yeah, it is, isn’t it!” Zeradu exclaimed, his voice growing louder by the second, not realizing that he was attracting the stares of nearby Omegas as he continued with, “Don’t you want to find out what really happened to the ship, and better yet, if it could be our ticket out of here? And don’t you want to know who’s driving this thing, and why we’ve never seen his face, only heard him rambling for all these years?”
He swept an arm up towards the loudspeaker in a grand gesture of disgust, expecting only Carozine to answer—but to his surprise, a small chorus chanted back,
Zeradu had been dreaming of this hour for countless years, but he always imagined he’d face the Captain alone—definitely not with a small army like the one that was now at his back, storming the old Walzgrix Wing where everyone knew the Captain’s quarters lurked. Normally, the entire area was walled off behind six layers of double-pounded oridium, laser-locked to keep all but the most trusted crew members out. But just as Zeradu suspected, the power outage had taken out all the security systems, and the backup generators weren’t powerful enough to maintain the once-impenetrable fortress for more than twenty minutes in the face of true disaster.
It had now been thirty.
“We’re sick of not knowing the truth!” Shouted the now-rabid Omegas behind him as they marched past the abandoned, chained off storefronts advertising everything from nail art (Zeradu was not sure why, as Omegas did not have nails) to Shiatsu massages (which probably wouldn’t have felt like much against cold, hard metal, he thought with a sigh). Everyone else in the mob except for Carozine was more keyed up than he’d ever seen in his life, but something about the entire march felt soulless, almost melancholy, now that he realized the fabled Walzgrix Wing was just a boring monument to a long-dead civilization like the rest of the ship.
But where was the Cap—
“This is your Captain with an important—glug—reminder—gluglug—for all—glug—SHOPPERS!” The loudspeaker cracked, emitting some kind of horrible, ultra-deep pulsing sound that seemed to shake the halls themselves. “As we should all know—glug—after spending so many—glug—centuries together, the Walzgrix Wing is—gluglug—strictly off—”
A bone-chilling static tore through the entire hallway as the intercom went silent: The logical explanation was that the power had failed halfway through the broadcast, but something about the way the Captain’s voice slowed down exponentially with that awful slurping sound at the very end made going forward seem somewhat less appealing . . .
“I knew it! It’s a black hole for sure! Now that he’s gone, it’s only a matter of seconds before it’s our turn!” Shouted someone from the back of the mob.
Seconds passed, turning him into a liar.
“What do you think he meant by “disaster recovery team,” anyway?” Carozine asked, resting her hand on her hip, pacing around in the shadow of a blocked-off escalator and letting some of the more eager Omegas pass by. Somehow, it didn’t even feel like they knew where they were going anymore. The Captain supposedly knew they were approaching, but there wasn’t a single sign of the SWAT crew, or even a lone mall security guy? Something wasn’t right.
Carozine must have been as tired as Zeradu felt, because she leaned back against the side of the escalator and flickered off her visor for a moment, seemingly collecting her thoughts. The weird slamming noises that had been echoing off the halls for the past hour seemed to be getting louder, and the floor of the ship hadn’t stopped quivering since the collision—or the attack, or the assimilation, or whatever in Earth’s memory could have possibly happened.
“We’ll probably never even know . . .” Zeradu sighed, suddenly feeling so tired he wished he could just slip back inside his dressing room and forget any of this had ever happened. All the shouts of “I knew it was all a bad dream!” and “We’ve been eaten!” were getting really, really annoying, and for a moment, he almost wished he could be back in that cozy blue booth in the food court, scratching poems on napkins about . . .
“Eek!” Carozine squeaked as the ship heaved again, this time so forcefully that her shoulder came crashing down on a panel on the side of the escalator. A groaning sound tore up from the inside of the stairs, but Zeradu had become too distracted by the revolting blob of slime that was now stuck to Carozine’s visor.
“What the hell?!” Carozine panicked, drawing stares from a few passing marchers—it seemed like the entire ship had shown up to storm the Captain’s quarters, now that it was totally unclear whether there was even a Captain left to storm. She wiped the goo from her visor with disgust, staring up at the ceiling and pointing with a quivering hand, “I . . . think it came from up there.”
“You mean . . . up wherever this thing will take us?” Zeradu asked, already knowing the answer as the escalator slowly ground to life—she must have accidentally tripped some kind of switch when she fell against it, he realized. Seems like an odd allocation of power resources during a major outage, but alright . . .
The two of them stared at each other as the crowd passed by, intangible twin flames encased in separate exoskeletons made in the image of a man (or god) they would never know. Everyone else was diverting around them as if they didn’t exist, zombies marching blindly into the abandoned Sunglass Caves and Eyebrow Threading Outposts, tearing their way to nowhere as a steady rain of goo continued to fall.
“You know what?” Zeradu asked, looking it all over one last time before finally deciding he couldn’t take it anymore.
“Tell me,” Carozine demanded.
“If they’re going that way,” Zeradu replied, gesturing to the soulless, vast, and soon-to-be dissolved crowd, “Then I’m willing to bet my life that we should go this way instead.”
He was about to point up the gaping maw of the escalator, up into the beckoning darkness and eternal freedom . . . But when he looked back, he realized she’d already beat him to it.
“Yeah, maybe we can finally get some answers. See who’s running the place,” Carozine answered, with one boot eagerly darting for the first slime-covered step.
Are you ready?” Carozine asked: But it was a gesture of courtesy, not a question. It was too late to say no, because she’d already grabbed his hand and made the choice for him.
“Always have been,” Zeradu answered, ignoring the acrid, burning slime that was quickly threatening to corrode his exoskeleton as the reverse-peristalsis of the circuits carried them far beyond the crowd.
“Huh? It’s way louder up here.”