04 January 2013

#fridayflash: natural behaviour

This one came from here, 'cos I needed a prompt:

It’s one of the better-designed ones, as shopping malls go. Both the car traffic and the public transit get swirled through to big, airy entrances. That’s where the cleverness really starts, because the shops have been arranged so that there’s no such thing as “pick something up quickly on the way home.” The smaller places along the perimeter are specialty shops that take a lot of browsing and discussions with clerks to get the right thing; the big department stores only have checkouts by the inside exits, leading shoppers further into the mall. Any idiot consumer herd-beast who thought he was just dropping by The Bay to pick up three pairs of plain navy socks will find himself overwhelmed by additional foraging options. He’ll be half a kilometre away from escape before he even knows what hit him.

The inner corridors offer further delights. Really, the principle is similar to an ant trap: the silly cattle may wander inside from curiosity or a need for something very specific, but once inside, in that deceptively open yet confined space, they’re prey to the smells wafted at them. Yes, smell. Not sight or sound — those factor in differently. That’s why the gourmet popcorn stands and the coffee shops and the places that sell cookies made with chunks of chocolate bars are placed around the inner edge of the trap interior. The scent hits their poor dumb noses as soon as they finish paying for their thin, badly-sized socks.

They count the hours since their last “treat” of sugar and starch, and they either decide it’s been long enough that they can afford an indulgence, or else they’ve strayed so recently that another hit won’t change the equation. As they’re led by the nose, they’re distracted by lots of shiny, blinking things, and by enough random loud sounds to overwhelm their natural fight-or-flight instinct. Upright apes are damned skittish when you get down to it — they’re the descendants of the ones who didn’t get caught by the sabre-toothed tigers way back when on the savannah. But if you mix in the good stimulus of sugar snacks with the bad stimulus of big noises, they run away from the annoyance... towards the temptation. And now their back brain is figuring they deserve a reward for avoiding the electronic successors of those sabre-toothed tigers.

What they don’t realise is that the corridors are designed so that the same air currents promising coated corn and sweetened caffeine will be delivering newer, tastier smells by the time they get to where they thought they were going. The thing about the popcorn stands is that there’s nowhere to sit, nowhere to put the garbage. But by the time you’re at the popcorn stand, you’re within sight (and scent) of the central food court.

These ape-cattle have been taught from infancy that they’re not allowed to have their dessert before they finish their meal. This is a shopping mall. It’s always close to meal-time in a shopping mall.

So off they go, to choose from an array of options that all come down to a small amount of protein served on a starch delivery medium, with just enough veg added for colour. It doesn’t matter if they get the meatball sub, or the pepperoni pizza, or the cheeseburger, or the souvlaki, or the beef with broccoli on a bed of fried rice. Same stuff dressed up different ways. The imitation of variety.

They’ll plunk themselves down with their tray, carefully stowing their shopping bag, and tuck in. They’ll have picked the cleanest table that they think is the safest. The whole thing is designed to make them want to come, but not stay: they have to sit in the centre, where there aren’t any walls to put their back against, where the echos converge to create a theatre of noise. They’ll scarf down their food on high alert and waddle back to the treat stands that led them here in the first place, and even if they’re stuffed they’ll want to opiate themselves with carbs.

And that’s when we get to move in on the ones marked to cut out of the herd. One of us can walk up, wearing a security guard’s uniform, and say, “Sir, The Bay requested we find you, there was an anomaly on your credit card transaction and they asked us to contact you right away.” Or there’s always, “Sir! Good, we found you. The security hub issued your photo, and we’ve been trying to spot you. You left the lights on in your car.” Or something. By this point, we’ve got enough footage of them on the security cameras that it’s not difficult to come up with a ruse.

They follow us through the heavy steel doors and down the sterile, fluorescent-lit side corridors like helpful little dogs. We take them to the security room and show them footage of themselves, to make them feel important. Like we’re serving them instead of the other way ‘round.

We offer to lead them through a staff-only shortcut so they can get to where-ever we told them they were going faster.

All those generations of fight-or-flight bred into them, and not a one has ever noticed there are no security cameras in the side corridors.

It’s easy to clean up. The video footage doesn’t need erasing, just obscuring. If they did have a car, we get rid of it. Often the police don’t even know they were at the mall. If they ask, we show them the requested videos, but in black-and-white and low-res, it’s hard to tell them apart.

We average nearly five litres of blood per harvest. We only need to harvest three or four times a year. Meanwhile, we have an entire mall to get income from.

Predatory is profitable.

The writing prompt:

"Last year in the U.S. alone more than nine hundred thousand people were reported missing and not found... That's out of three hundred million, total population. That breaks down to about one person in three hundred and twenty-five vanishing. Every year.... Maybe it's a coincidence, but it's almost the same loss ratio experienced by herd animals on the African savannah to large predators."

— Jim Butcher, Dead Beat


  1. ooo someone didn't enjoy shopping for Christmas recently! I loved the idea that humans were being observed as if in a lab rat maze, only the maze is our actual lives & habits.

    In London they built a high end shopping mall for the Olympics in what is one of the more run down areas of the city. When you left the Olympic Park, you were forced to walk through this mall to get to the trains to escape the area. Just as you said here. So it's absolutely already happening!

    marc nash

    1. It's totally already happening. All the details I put in are from an actual mall. It was built in the 1970s as sort of a high street with a roof over it, but it's been extensively remodelled over the years.

      "Nice" the Olympic organisers tried to get the attendees to spend some more money on their way home.

  2. Well, that is a damned good prompt. I don't blame you at all for seizing upon it, and better than the typical UFO explanation, too!

    1. Thank you! This particular solution came from a Monty Python sketch. But that's another story.

  3. Y'know Katherine, this is really scary, very well written too, but scary.

    A few years ago my wife and I paid our only visit to Ikea, once inside we had to circumnavigate the whole of the store to get to the exit, I thought that was where this story was going, I was definitely way off the mark with that thought.

    1. I love IKEA! Most of my furniture comes from there. It's definitely somewhere you have to learn to shop at. My personal record is two bookshelves bought, paid for, and arranged for delivery in under 30 minutes.

      IKEA leaves room to let themselves be "hacked", though -- they don't care so long as you buy product. Not so true at shopping malls.

  4. The next person who tries to pull me aside at the mall is getting a chop to the throat and a glimpse of my road runner impression. And to HELL with the food court.

    Man, this was creepy. But so much fun.

  5. This makes me wonder if they got the old guy I saw so many years ago, standing in front of an electronics boutique, rooted to the floor in front of a big-screen showing scantily-clad women gyrating on MTV.

    Me, I know exactly which entrance to use to hit the Apple Store. It's right next to Victoria's Secret though… talk about your nerd trap. :-P

    1. Agreed that it sounds like somebody knows how to handle real estate.

  6. That's a REALLY clever, and really scary, idea.


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