The store’s anti-theft system pinged. It was a gentle series of three tones, barely audible or distinguishable from a ringtone. Certainly nothing like the klaxon sirens of old, reflecting the fact that it was more profitable for Metromart to let the occasional shoplifter escape than to alienate customers who had forgotten an item in the bottom of their carts.

“We’re sorry, the Metromart automatic inventory control system has been activated. Please wait for an associate to assist you.”

No associate arrived, and there was no customer to wait for them; it scarcely mattered, as the tones and pre-recorded message went off again and again, looping with just a tiny interval in between. The sliding doors just behind them did the same, endlessly opening, blasting the cold winter air with overhead heaters, and closing again.

A screen near the entrance lit up. “Welcome to Metromart number [static], proudly serving the greater [static] area,” it said in a synthetic female voice. “Today’s specials are [static], [static], and [static].” Brightly colored boxes swirled into place, with placeholder graphics in place of the special items.

Screens all over the store, in fact, churned on loops with both canned advertisements and procedurally generated content. The Metromart was busy and bright, with every sound reflecting off spotless walls and every sight mirrored in glossy tile. But there were no customers.

And there never would be.

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