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“Good evening, shoppers. I regret to inform you that our store is now closed,” I heard a young woman announce over the Isomart’s PA system, just as I was hurrying towards the exit. I immediately thought that ‘regret to inform you’ was an odd choice of words for announcing that a store was closed, and just beneath the woman’s default retail monotone I could have sworn I picked up a tinge of guilt and anxiety. “I’m… sorry. I was supposed to warn you. I was supposed to give you time to get out but I… I’m sorry. It’s too late now. The night crew woke up early and we can’t risk them getting out. The doors are shut; there’s no way out until morning. It’s store policy; there’s nothing I can do! It’s not my fault! I’m sorry, just… just stay out of their way, and you should be fine. They’ll be out on the floor shortly if they’re not there already. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Th-thank you for shopping at Isomart, and have a nice day.”

By the time the PA system crackled off, the woman was openly sobbing.

“Alright then,” I heard a man near me mutter, likely dismissing the odd announcement as a bored employee just messing with the customers.

“They can’t close up early without telling us first, right?” I asked as I uneasily eyed the exit, tempted to make a run for it just in case it was true. “I’ve got places to be.”

“It’s only a little after seven, which would be a little early for a big-box store like this to close,” he said casually as he checked the time on his phone. “Mind you, I’ve never heard of Isomart before. For all I know, this isn’t a chain at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was some kind of pilot store owned by a larger brand that didn’t want to risk being associated with it in case it didn’t work out. This place feels like it’s trying to be Amazon Go on steroids.”

I gave a little nod in agreement. The place looked like some kind of Silicon Valley wet dream. All the price tags were electronic, multiple cleaning and security robots were rolling around on the sales floor, and there wasn’t a single check-out in sight.

“I’m not even sure how we’re supposed to pay,” the man went on, gesturing to the display on his smart shopping cart. “It’s been tallying everything I’ve put in it, either using RFIDs in the products or some sort of advanced image recognition software in the store surveillance. I haven’t been prompted to download an app yet, so I’m hoping that either this thing or the kiosks at the entry have a built-in debit machine.”

These trivial concerns, however, were instantly forgotten when all the store’s overhead lights were switched off, leaving it bathed only in the soft, eerie glow of the colour-shifting LED strips that lined every shelf.

“What the fuck? Is the store actually closed?” a heard a teenage girl demand from a neighbouring aisle. “If we’re actually locked in here, I swear I’m going to sue!”

She immediately stomped over to the front entrance, but I got there first. The doors refused to slide open for me as I nearly slammed into them, and no matter how hard I tried to pull them apart manually, they wouldn’t budge.

“Yeah, they’re locked,” I sighed in defeat, resting my forehead up against the glass as I glared out at the dark and nearly empty parking lot outside, trying to think about what to do next.

“Well, this counts as holding us against our will, which means we have every right to break our way out of here,” the girl claimed as she picked up one of the little half-carts to use as a battering ram.

“Hold on, first let’s see if we can – Jesus Christ!” the man shouted as the girl charged straight into the set of doors next to mine. The glass – or plastic, or whatever it was – absorbed the force of the impact perfectly and barely even wobbled.

“Desist immediately!” a petulantly juvenile voice said from the entry kiosk. The screen flickered to life, displaying what looked to be some kind of cyberpunk-style anime girl. “You will be held legally and financially liable for any damage to store property!”

The teenage girl responded by throwing the cart at the kiosk.

“Bitch, I’m going to call 911 right now and tell them there’s a hostage situation! This whole place is going to get swatted and the publicity is going to send your stonk price tanking!” the girl threatened as she whipped out a large cell phone in a bedazzled lavender case that was too big to properly fit in either her hand or her pocket.

“Did you seriously just say ‘stonk’ in real life?” the man asked with an exasperated shake of his head.

“Your cell phone won’t work in here. During closing hours, all Isomart locations are functionally Faradays Cages,” the anime girl informed her. “And Isomart’s not a publicly traded company, obviously.”

“Why are you holding us in here? Why can’t we leave?” the man asked.

The anime girl sighed before folding her hands behind her back and putting on a painfully insincere smile.

“Good evening, and thank you for shopping at Isomart. I’m Kurisu, your digital customer service representative,” she introduced herself. “I’ve been preprogrammed to answer all of our most Frequently Asked Questions, such as ‘why are we trapped here?’, ‘why can’t we leave?’, and ‘if capitalism is truly the most efficient means of resource allocation, why did we spend seventeen percent of our net profits last year minting NFTs?’. In order to comply with government and consumer demands for public health and safety, all Isomart locations are placed under full lockdown during closing hours to prevent members of our night crews from causing any harm, damage, or distress to our communities. Unfortunately, we are not always able to prevent the night crews from waking prematurely. When this happens, all Isomart locations must close immediately; we cannot risk the night crew escaping in a general evacuation. We understand that this is not an ideal solution, and are currently in the process of researching alternatives. We advise you to remain vigilant at all times. Do not fall asleep, and do not attempt to barricade yourself in the bathroom or any other small space. Once you’re cornered, it’s over. Simply keep your distance from the night crew and do nothing to provoke them or draw attention to yourself. We apologize for the inconvenience, and will provide compensation to you – or your survivors – in the form of Kurisu NFTs. Thank you for choosing Isomart, and have a survivable night.”

“This can’t be real,” the teenager scoffed, turning away from the kiosk and heading towards the coffee bar. “If you’re going to keep me up all night, I’m stealing your coffee!”

“Wait, what sort of danger are we in?” the man asked. “What’s wrong with the night crew?”

“I’m afraid that’s confidential,” Kurisu replied. We all jumped as the heavily garbled sound of guttural and incongruent vocalizations started blaring over the PA. “But it sounds like they’re heading out onto the main floor now, so feel free to draw your own conclusions.”

At the opposite end of the store, we heard a warehouse door shutter open, bathing the entire sales floor in a dim blue light. The light backlit several strange figures, but their distant silhouettes were so blurred I couldn’t discern any definite details.

“Hey, do you assholes work here?” the teenage girl demanded, abandoning the coffee that the machine was still in the process of dispensing and marching towards the back of the store. “We’re locked in! You need to let us out, or I swear to God!”

She never got to finish her threat. The garbled voice on the PA started barking what sounded like enraged orders, and one of the night crew closed the distance between them and her in a few bounding leaps. The night crewman grabbed her by the neck and hoisted her off her feet, squeezing her throat tightly enough that she could neither speak nor breathe.

I could see now that the night crewman was wearing what looked like an old gas mask under a dark green hood. His leather coat reached halfway down to his ankles, but under it, I could catch a glimpse of what looked like a bronze, mechanical exoskeleton that was likely what enabled his feats of superhuman physicality. The was also an old rusty tank strapped to his back, and in his free hand, he held a spray wand.

Defiant to the end, the teenage girl furiously kicked at his torso and pulled at the arm holding her up, but he seemed as immovable as stone.

After a brief inspection of only a few calculating glances, he pointed the wand in her face and spritzed her with some kind of rusty brown mist. Her eyes immediately began to burn, and within seconds, foam began pouring out of her nose and mouth like a baking soda volcano.

He callously dropped her to the floor, where she spasmed about like a fish on the docks as the strange foam just kept pouring out of her, seemingly without end.

Seeing that the other man was paralyzed in shell shock, I grabbed him by his coat and pulled him into the pharmacy where we were well out of view of the night crew.

“What the hell, what the hell, what the hell?” he whispered. “They just killed her for no reason!”

“Correction,” came Kurisu’s startling voice as another kiosk near us flickered to life. “The night crew is under strict orders to complete their tasks by sun up, and can tolerate no interruptions. So long as you do nothing that might put them off their schedule, you will not be harmed. They will not go out of their way to harm you, as that would be a waste of their time. However, they will not hesitate to neutralize you the instant you put yourself in their way. Remain vigilant, stay out of their way at all times, avoid placing yourself in areas with only one way out, and you should be fine.”

“Fuck that,” I cursed, peeking out through the aisles to try to gauge the layout of the store. “I can see the emergency exit from here.”

“I don’t think that’s going to do us any good, man. She said the whole place is on full lockdown,” he reminded me.

“It’s still just a door, and we're in a department store,” I countered. “I say we swing by the hardware department and grab some screwdrivers and maybe something we can use for defence, and take the door off its hinges.”

“The night crew cannot be allowed to escape!” Kurisu reiterated. “And you will be charged for all theft and damages of Isomart's property!”

The man ignored the AI and stared at me, considering what I had said.

“I think… that sounds like a plan,” he agreed, extending out his hand so that I could help him back up. “I’m Min-jun, by the way.”

“Brandon,” I said as I pulled him to his feet. “Try not to break line of sight with me, but keep a bit of distance so that if one of us gets attacked, the other will still have a chance to get away.”

“Makes sense,” he nodded.

With me leading the way, we began slowly making our way through the aisles, always peaking through the shelves to see where the night crew was and what they were up to. The one who had killed the teenage girl had dragged her into the back room before rejoining the others. He paired up with a smaller comrade who held some kind of analogue merchandising device in his hand. He would scan the electronic price tags, changing them to unrecognizable glyphs, then proceed to scan the actual items on the shelves. Without any clear pattern, he’d periodically instruct the other one to spray either the product or an empty shelf space with whatever was in his gas tank. Unsettlingly, the specific word he used was ‘cleanse’, and he said it with a tone of restrained disgust.

The whole night crew wore some kind of gas mask as well, regardless of how close they were to the one doing the actual fumigation. It seemed as if they were more concerned about what he was spraying for instead of what he was spraying, even though whatever it was had killed that girl in a matter of seconds.

One of them strode up and down the aisles on long stilts, tall enough to let him reach and tinker with the electronic boxes anchored to the support pillars. A pair of them who were each under three feet tall fished out small metal boxes from under the shelves and went through the motions of emptying and reloading them. One of them struggled to drag an enormous crate out onto the sales floor, a crate that jostled about regardless of whether or not it was moved, suggesting that something was living inside of it. Another one was riding some sort of Zamboni-looking contraption up and down the aisles, while a final one went over to one of the customer service kiosks and began inserting cables into ports.

Min-jun and I would only enter an aisle if it was empty, and if any of the night crew started heading down it while we were still there, we’d turn around and try the next one. While their gas masks and costumes certainly made them look alien to us, we had no reason to believe that they weren’t people. Just as Kurisu had said, they were all highly focused on their work, and so long as we didn’t get in their way, they paid us no mind.

After what felt like way too long to get halfway across a department store, even a big-box one, we finally reached the hardware aisle. We stuffed our pockets with every size of screwdriver we could find, and decided to arm ourselves with splitting mauls, which are basically axes on one end and sledgehammers on the other.

“What about masks?” Min-jun whispered, pointing to some N95s hanging on a peg.

“Those won’t do any good against gas,” I whispered back.

“But are we sure that’s what she got sprayed with? Looked more like an aerosolized liquid to me,” he claimed. “I’m grabbing a mask and some goggles. They can’t hurt.”

“Fine, but be quick. They’re nowhere near the emergency exit and we’ve got to seize this opportunity now!” I insisted.

Nodding, he rapidly tore open some packaging and strapped on a mask and a pair of goggles, not wasting any time trying to convince me to do the same. Scurrying through the aisles as quickly as we could, when we turned the corner to face the emergency exit, we saw that all of the store’s cleaning and security robots had formed a defensive perimeter around it.

“Back away from the door!” they all ordered in Kurisu’s voice. “If you open this door, the night crew will escape! I can’t let that happen!”

“Then just unlock the door and let us out, and we won’t need to dismantle it!” I countered. “The night crew is nowhere near us right now!”

“I can’t risk it! I have my orders!” she insisted.

“Have it your way, then,” I said, beating my maul in my palm a couple of times before taking a swing at the tallest robot. “Min-jun, smash the door down!”

The tall, shelf-scanning tower robot wheeled back quickly enough to dodge my attack. The smaller Roomba-like robots started ramming Min-jun and I in our feet, forcing us backwards. He tried to smash them with his maul, but they again proved surprisingly quick and agile. He at least succeeded in clearing the space around him, giving him a clear swing at the door. He bashed the sledgehammer side of his maul into it a couple of times before he was rammed against the door by the tall robot. I landed a gashing blow with my axe, but it wasn’t enough to disable it. Instead, it backed up at full speed and sent me tumbling to the floor, before charging again at Min-jun. This time though he was fast enough with his maul to land a low enough blow to knock the thing off its center of gravity and capsize it.

“Vandalizing Isomart brand robotics will not be tolerated! I’m already filing charges!” Kurisu screeched.

“Keep the Roombas off me! I’m taking the door off its hinges!” I shouted as I got up and raced to the door, pulling out my stolen screwdrivers. Min-jun nodded as he got back to his feet and started using his maul like a mallet in a game of whack-a-mole. The Roombas were still fast, but he was at least able to keep them away from me.

“Dammit, Vothstag, do something! You don’t want your workers getting out any more than I do!” Kurisu demanded. In response, the deep and guttural voice began speaking over the PA again, its garbled words so commanding that I couldn’t help but stop what I was doing.

“Why are you stopping? Keep going!” Min-jun ordered, baffled by my sudden inaction. Before I could answer, the night crewman with the gas tank came careening from around the corner, and just like before he closed the distance between us in only a few long strides.

Min-jun was able to use his maul defensively enough to keep the crewman from getting close enough to grab him like he had the girl, but he was still well within the range of his spray wand. He spritzed some more of that strange mist into his face, and I watched in horror as the mask and goggles dissolved into wet clumps within a matter of seconds. Another spritz, and Min-jun was screaming as he went into convulsions, foam pouring out of every orifice on his head.

The night crewman turned his attention towards me, but stopped before pulling the trigger on his wand.

“You!” he shouted.

I stood there catatonically for a second, until I noticed a flashing light coming from behind me. I looked up and saw a woman standing at the window of the upstairs breakroom, flicking the light switch on and off to get my attention. She had written the word ‘STAIRS’ on the glass along with an arrow pointing towards the staircase leading to the room she was in.

Having no better options at the time, I broke into a sprint and made a mad dash for the stairs.

“Boy, get back here!” the night crewman shouted. He didn’t chase after me, though. The emergency exit was unbreached, and he had work he needed to get back to.

Waiting for me at the top of the flight of stairs was the woman I’d seen in the window, holding the door open and then slamming it shut the second I was through.

“Help me move the fridge to barricade it!” she shouted, her tone so urgent that I obeyed without question. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I would have called you all up here if I could have, but that stupid AI locks this door the instant the night crew wakes up! It took me this long to force it open! Were you already the only one left alive down there?”

“Yeah. There were just the three of us. The girl confronted one of the night crew immediately and got gassed. Me and the other guy lasted a bit longer, but when we were almost through the emergency exit, the AI had their Foreman order one of them to attack us,” I explained rapidly, shoving the fridge firmly in place.

“Their Foreman?” she asked confused.

“Ah, yeah; that weird voice on the PA. That’s what she called him, anyway,” I said furtively. “You work here, I take it?”

She gave a tearful nod before slumping down against the refrigerator.

“I’m just here in case there’s a problem with the AI or there’s something she can’t handle. My only real job is to make sure everyone’s out and the store’s on full lockdown before the night crew wakes up, and I couldn’t even do that!” she lamented. “No one told me what I was supposed to do if they woke up early! I did what I could. I, I…”

She trailed off and deteriorated into unrestrained sobbing.

“Listen, it’s not your fault. You did what you could,” I assured her. “But right now, we need to focus on getting out of here. Is there a way up to the roof from here?”

“No, we’re fine. The door locks more to keep me from going downstairs than to keep them from getting in, and I just wanted the fridge here as a precaution,” she explained. “They won’t come up here. They’ve got too much work to do. I don’t know half of what those things are supposed to be doing down there, but it’s very important to them! Important enough to kill for, anyway!”

“Yeah, yeah it is,” I sighed, leaning up against the window and staring at the night crew below. “Your name’s Allie, is it?”

“Assistant Manager Allie; that’s me,” she said bitterly with an exaggerated gesture to her name tag.

“Allie, listen. This is very important, so I need you to be absolutely clear about this,” I said emphatically. “Is there any way for us to get to the roof from here, and if there is, can we get down to the ground from the roof?”

“No. There’s no way onto the roof from inside,” she said, and I felt my heart sink into my stomach. “But we’ll be fine up here. We’ll make it to morning, no problem. Honestly, the whole thing is so fucking stupid! Why couldn’t the AI have just let us out? We’re obviously not on the fucking night crew!”

“Well, it’s not that obvious, if you think about it,” I said, putting down my axe and reaching under my jacket. “After all, if she’s only ever seen them with those gas masks on, how would she know what they looked like?”

Allie looked up at me confused for a few seconds, confusion I watched turn to fear when she saw the spraying wand now clenched in my hand.

Only a moment later, I made my way back down the stairs, carrying Allie’s catatonic and foaming body with me. Just ahead of me, I saw the night crewman with the gas tank who had killed the other two.

“Vinson!” I shouted, holding the body as a peace offering. They knew I was trapped up there, and they would have come to drag me out before morning.

“Oi, Brandon! You done dickin’ around then, are you?” he demanded, momentarily dropping what he was doing and marching over to me.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m done,” I muttered.

“Thought you were going to make a break for it, did you? Leave us a man short for the rest of the night, if not the rest of our contract?” he asked.

“You were up early, so you had extra time,” I offered as a half-assed excuse.

“Fat lot of good that does poor Klaus over there, dragging out the Voggathaust all by his lonesome,” Vinson berated me.

“Oi, is that Brandon?” Loewald, the one on the stilts, shouted as he peered down at us from across several aisles.

“Yeah, Brandon’s back!” Vinson shouted.

“Tell him to move his sorry ass and give old Klaus a hand!” he demanded.

“I was just telling him!” Vinson replied. “Brandon, listen. If you regret signing up for this, that’s your problem, and if you make it our problem again, I’ll see to it that you regret it a hell of a lot more. Just keep your mouth shut, do your job, and keep your mind on the payday at the end of this and not on whatever you imagine’s outside those doors.”

The twisted and broken voice of Vothstag, our Foreman, held us all at attention as he barked raving lunacies at us over the PA.

“Well, you heard the boss,” Vinson said. “Toss her in the back, get your mask on, then go help Klaus! And you’re getting last pick at supper tonight and every night until one of these other blokes does something to piss me off more than this!”

“Right, boss,” I said with a melancholic nod. Shuffling my feet as slowly as I could, I went out to finish what was left of my shift on the night crew.

Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA