Natalie preferred shopping at dusk, when the rolling blackouts generally didn’t come and the interior of the Metromart was well-lit. It also helped that the landlines worked for processing her payment, instead of having to rely on cellular signals or paper, which often as not meant disputing a double charge.

“W-w-w-w-w-w-w-w…” As she stepped through, the old automated greeter attempted to say “Welcome to Metromart!” but stumbled on the first syllable.

“X,” said Natalie with a sardonic smile. “Y. Z. Next time, won’t you sing with me?”

The automated greeter said nothing, having shut down after a moment. Spare parts were probably needed for the registers anyhow, and the human greeters that they used sometimes tended to be in short supply when the store manager’s grandfather didn’t need a job.

“Welcome to Metromart,” said one of the cashiers over her shoulder without even looking.

There was a line of metal carts, requiring a deposit and burglar alarmed against scrap metal thieves, but Natalie took a bag ($5 retail) instead. She always carried one around before dropping it back onto the shelf just before checkout. The cashiers yelled at her sometimes, but Natalie needed something a little stiffer than hot air to carry everything by hand or dump credits into a cart.

She walked out into the corner of the store that was still lit and occupied, the rest of the cavernous exterior being blocked off and dusty. A cracked screen with bubbles and ghosts in its liquid crystals stirred to life at her approach. “W-w-when I need some quick energy on the go, I always choose Photon Energy Bars. Now available in the bar aisle!”

Natalie always got a kick out of those. The video hadn’t been updated in at least 10 years, but somebody with a computer and a modicum of skill had crudely dubbed over the name of the original, long-dead product (Jolt-brand caffeinated cereal bars) and pasted a still image in over the model’s hand. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll be happy to buy your caffienated cereal bars,” she said. “If only I can find a store that stocks them.”

After that, it was all business. There was a meager paycheck to be spent, an even more meager trickle of aid from the Outland Empire, and things got pretty rough pretty quickly once dusk turned to full-on night.

Inspired by the song ‘7th Heaven’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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