Zap walked slowly down the aisle, checking to make sure that the products were in their proper places and near their appropriate price tags. It was a far easier job than inventory; all it took was simple pattern recognition and basic reading skills. Zap always volunteered for it when he was feeling too lazy to take care of anything else around the store, and today was such an occasion. As he slowly approached the end of the aisle, he could hear To’mas and Steve bantering.
“I just don’t understand how you can buy into that corporate noise,” Steve said.
“Good music is what it is,” To’mas replied. “It’s popular for a reason.”
Zap paused in front of one of the shelves. Someone had completely ransacked the soft drinks, leaving them completely mislabeled and scrambled. He sighed and reached toward the first misplaced case of Go-Go Cola.
“It’s popular,” Steve said as though she were speaking to a child, “because that’s what Mix Media puts on the ether. They put top cred into making it popular. People try to convince themselves that they’re into this music, but they’re really just trying to fit in.”
“That doesn’t make the music any worse, though!” To’mas objected. “Ellis Manteaux is a talented singer and dancer.”
“Whose songs are all written by other people.”
“So what? Who cares?”
Zap hauled case after case of soda from one location on the shelf to another, occasionally referencing the price tags to make sure the cases were going to the right places. He wondered what exactly someone needed with the drinks that they had to have them all on the wrong shelves.
Maybe somebody had a Supermarket ritual they needed to do.
“So it’s manufactured! How can you think of it as art when it’s mass-produced and shoveled into our faces?”
“Because when you get right down to the compositional level, it is still composed by people. By artists.” To’mas insisted.
“By sellouts,” Steve snarked.
“Now you’re just being bitchy, is the thing.”
Zap stood back and looked at the shelf, which now at least appeared to be organized. He resumed walking.
“How about Rubeus?” asked To’mas. “Is Rubeus a sell-out?”
“Absolutely,” Steve replied with certainty.
Zap reached the end of the aisle and turned the corner, encountering his two arguing co-workers.
“Because he’s thrown himself into the popular music mill!” Steve said.
“So what, so anybody who uses effective networking and associates himself with major promoters is a sell-out?” To’mas retorted. Zap walked up to the two of them and stuck his hands in his pockets, listening.
“Yes,” Steve said.
“Then what, exactly,” To’mas asked, folding his arms, “is wrong with selling out?”
“What’s wrong with selling out?” To’mas said, now spreading his hands. “Is it making money off of art? Do you have to struggle, is that the only valid kind of art?”
“That’s not what I’m saying!” Steve objected.
“I think you’re just bitter because rock isn’t popular any more.”
“Excuse me,” said an unfamiliar voice.
The three employees turned to look at the person who’d spoken, a girl with short blonde hair in cargoes and a t-shirt. A basket hung from her arm. The employees looked at her for a moment, then To’mas said, “Yes?”
“Um, do you carry genmai-cha?”
“Yeah, it’s in the tea aisle,” To’mas responded.
“I checked the tea aisle,” the girl said, “but I didn’t see it.”
Steve and To’mas both looked at Zap, who sighed and started walking, motioning for the customer to follow. “Come on, I’ll take you to it.”
Zap and the customer walked away from the other employees, who resumed their argument as soon as the others had disappeared into an aisle.
“Look,” Steve said, “I’m just saying that popular music is like … stolen goods. Anyway the lyrics are always shit.”
“Rubeus’s lyrics are good!”
“But Ellis Manteaux’s lyrics are shit.”
To’mas set his jaw, then nodded. “Okay, her lyrics are pretty bad. But the music’s good.”
“Yes, says I.”
“Were either of you,” Alan said, having just emerged from a nearby aisle, “planning on doing any work this hour?”
“At some point, sure,” To’mas said dismissively. “Hey Alan, what kind of music do you listen to?”
“Muzak covers of baroque music,” Alan replied glibly.
The other two employees stared at him. Steve murmured, “Are you serious?”
“Iyesu!” Alan said. “No! Okay, enough of this drek. To’mas, there are customers over there. Go help some. Steve, go clean the bathroom.”
The employees grumbled, but moved to accomplish their assignments nonetheless. Alan stood still for a moment, then looked around him, then exclaimed into the air, “And where the hell is Matt?!”
Outside of the 15th and Neimuth Securemarket™, only a few meters from the front windows of the store, Matthew Del Fye stood looking up at the sky. Passersby walked by him without pause; he paid them about as much regard. He had stood for a few minutes when he broke from his reverie unprompted. He broke into stride, his long legs carrying him swiftly down the sidewalk.
As he approached the rail station and headed into it, he received some odd looks from commuters. Not only was Matt a person with a rather distinctive appearance, but he had not bothered to remove his Securemarket™ employee apron and was still wearing it as he stepped onto the Q train.
Within a few minutes, he had reached his destination. He got off the train and strode up the stairs. Once on the street, he glanced about lazily, then chose a direction and walked in it. Three minutes later, he stopped in front of a building that had a large sign reading “Dru’s Garage” on it. Matt pushed open the front door, which opened into a small lobby. He bypassed the lobby without comment, getting a confused stare from the front desk attendant, walked into a hallway, went through a door on his left, and found himself in a garage, where a sleek-looking car was being serviced.
The three engineers in the garage stared at the intruder. One of them was a girl in overalls with long black hair tied in a braid. She stared at Matt, who walked up to her like an old friend. She waited a moment, then stammered, “Uh … can I help you, sir?”
“No,” Matt replied cheerfully. “I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.”
“…what?” the girl asked.
“Don’t worry,” Matt said, nodding. “I see you’re worth it now.”
“Worth what? Do you work with—”
“I gotta get back,” Matt said. “I’m going to get yelled at real good if I don’t get back in ten minutes.”
“Good to meet you, Nalley,” Matt said, turning away and waving as he walked away. “I’ll tell him you said hi.”
“Sure thing,” Matt said and exited, closing the door behind him.
One of Nalley’s co-workers stared at her. “What the hell was that about?”
The black-haired girl tapped her lips. “My boyfriend told me that he worked with a street oracle,” she murmured. “I think that was him. Matt.”
“That was weird,” the other co-worker said.
“Was it?” Nalley asked, turning back to the car and sticking her arm down into its hood, resuming her work. “It’s kind of normal, given the way my life has been so far.”
The first coworker nodded. “New Washington.”
“New Washington,” the other agreed.
“Whatever,” Nalley muttered.