The Welcome Eagle maintained its circular course while its keen eyes scanned the world below. Prey arrived in abundance, filling the first floor concourse moments after the first peak Metro trains arrived at the basement station. They queued at Buckian’s for their morning blends of caffeine, amphetamine, methylphenidate, and more exotic compounds of stimulation. Piping hot ounces of arousal and focus waited inside, filled and debited from orders made in transit. The line was but a physical formality, one quickly expedited, which brought the Mall to life immediately.
The Welcome Eagle sounded its melodic hail, setting off a cannonade of adMines. The air from levels 2 through 6 exploded in a multicolored cacophony of beauty, information, and sales, sales, sales. Pervasion stats arrived instantaneously. Disappointing. The first campaign of the day and it barely breached the consumers and their Ad Blindness. They entered the Mall with their filters set to max, setting the terms of the guerilla war for their awareness. This battle may have been lost, but the Mall would win. It always did.
New commuters arrived, and the Welcome Eagle called forth a new volley of explosions. It glided higher, skimming its dorsal feathers on the ceiling of the dome. A sense of shame filled the mighty bird as it recalled the days when it was but a chick and knew nothing of its occupation. Instinct surpassed intelligence and it made for the open sky, but the dome withstood all its bombardments, bending, rippling, but never breaking. The Mall provided everything, and it had pursued the silly cause of freedom.
Reinvigorated by the memory, the Welcome Eagle set the adMines to auto burst. Shoppers had separated from the herd of commuters and required greeting during their ascent of the retail paradise. The Eagle loved this work, but despised each technological advancement that stole pleasure from its labor. More and more humans wandered the Mall with minimal cognizance, relying on environmental sensors to warn of collisions and predestinated coordinates to arrive at points of interest. They lived off reality in their worlds and games, defining their joys while avoiding the sales. But, there were ways.
One need only swoop closely by a client to set off an alert and attain their full attention. Of course, one did risk a reaction that lacked ebullience, but such was the danger of retail when sales goals needed meeting. It helped to fortify and locate an amiable spirit in the wave of data pulsating from the throng, a person emitting pleasant core indicators who might like a chat. A beacon appeared upon the sea of indifference and potential indifference. The Welcome Eagle brushed the clear ceiling one last time, then altered its bearing for the 4th floor food court.
Shoulders pressed against the back of the surprisingly comfortable Zero Waste seaty comprised of compressed ash, Apex Guffin craned his head heavenward, awed. Tears trailed his cheeks, corrupting the thumbnails on the left side with small, persistent refractions. His hands lay on the table before him, forgotten, encircling the bottom of a Buckian’s to-go cup. Coffee stained the sipping pore. That was the only beverage they served within his legal rights.
He searched for a corner in the spherical food court, and, having failed, settled for a table in the shadow of a support arch. It was his habit to hide when in the Mall and take in its majesty. This time the experience had overwhelmed him when the Welcome Eagle landed and perched across the table.
“Apex Guffin!!! Happy Birthday!” it stated in its pleasant tenor. Then the great bird noticed his emotion. “Is anything the matter, my returning friend?”
“Such a spectacle,” he whispered. “So splendid.”
“Yes, our Mall is one of the 3 Wonders of the World, post-Cataclysm. Our sister dome over Hollywood is another. The Uptown community in New York is the third,” the eagle informed him.
“Only three wonderful things in the world?” he asked, distantly.
“Well, only three that matter,” assured the Welcome Eagle.
Apex Guffin focused on the great bird for the first time, wiped his eyes, and produced a fresh pack of prescription smokes from the pocket of his all weathers.
“Do you…?” he hesitated. “Would you like a…?”
The Welcome Eagle laughed.
“Thank you, Apex Guffin, but, no. I have no need to smoke.”
“Oh,” said Guffin, nodding slowly as he returned his gaze to the Mall. “I always imagined that the inside of Jupiter looked like this,” he offered, hazily. “A secret world inside the sphere, you know, with something different happening on each ring. An adventure.” He placed the smoke between his lips, dragging when it self-ignited. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Very exciting, Apex Guffin,” said the eagle. “You should have been a civic planner.”
This time Apex Guffin laughed.
“Didn’t work out that way,” he said, tapping on his embedded screen, playing havoc with the thumbnails. “You know, Eagle, I was in the Norm for an instant. Chipping left little scars back then.” He leaned forward. “Look back here below the hair.”
The Welcome Eagle blinked, craned its head curiously, then stretched forward to politely inspect the tale.
“Hmmmm,” it grunted, disapprovingly. “The Antiquity marred you terribly when they stripped you.”
“That’s the price of love, I guess,” he replied, waning like one untethered to reality. Then: “Would you like to see my crimes? The evidence is quite biased.”
“That’s alright. I believe you, Apex Guffin.”
“Thank you, Eagle. It means so much that the Mall will let me come here, find a quiet spot, and dream for a bit.”
“The Mall loves you,” the Welcome Eagle said, affectionately. “Criminal, LD, and members of the Norm are all welcome here. It only asks that its minimal standards for dress and hygiene are met, and that’s rarely an issue.” The great bird chuckled. “The fact is it’s more an issue with members of the Norm than the likes of you.”
“This place scares most like me,” Apex Guffin confided. “The Mall moves faster than our world and you don’t sell a lot of the things we use to survive. I mean, I think it’s beautiful when the air explodes here. But, it terrifies most of the Learning Disabled. They can’t be chipped, so they can’t imagine what’s happening. I guess that could be overwhelming. Personally, I think of fireworks at the end of Lakers games.”
“You know, Staples Center used to be where Buckian’s is now,” said the Eagle.
“I know. He keeps a small image of it behind the counter.”
“Him,” replied Apex Guffin, pointing at a large man sitting with a young lady at a table across the food court.
“Ahhhh, Lexter Adept,” said the Welcome Eagle after following the gesture. “Managing Stimuologist of our Buckian’s and…hmmm…I’ve no data on the young woman yet. ”
“He’s always very kind to me when I go there,” Apex Guffin continued. “He took 30% off my coffee. I didn’t even tell him it was my birthday. He just read my profile. It meant a lot because something was really bothering me before.” He paused. “What was it?”
He pondered, deeply, too distracted to notice the change in the Welcome Eagle. It seemed frozen, absorbed by a ghostly whisper.
“I can’t remember. I CAN’T REMEMBER!!!” Apex Guffin laughed, heartily. “You hear that, Eagle? I smoked myself euphoric.”
Without a word, the Welcome Eagle leapt from the table, beating its wings, rising and rising until it disappeared in its aerie sculpted into the massive Mall logo that adorned the Level 6 walkway.
“Weird,” said Apex Guffin.
That’s when things that weren’t supposed to started to explode.