The Cost of Living by vegetables
Grant had been having a terrible morning before the checkout machine started speaking to him. He’d felt so bad that he almost hadn’t noticed it, paying no attention to what its jolly voice was saying. It just added to his stress as the red lights flashed above him, of having too much work and too little money and a wife he couldn't get to leave him. No one would come along to fix any of those problems, and no one was coming to sort out the checkout machine now.
“We’re sorry: there seems to be a problem,” the machine started saying again. As usual, it wasn't clear to Grant what the problem actually was. The frozen pizza which seemed to trigger the message looked exactly the same as the one that he’d put in his bag, but the machine seemed to see them as entirely different things. Frustrated, he looked at the screen for the first time.
And froze, as he noticed what it said.
“Baggage detected. There seems to be a problem with Grant Noakes.”
Grant gasped and jumped back from the machine, throwing his hands in the air. He’d have thought the other shoppers would have noticed him making a scene, but nobody seemed much to care. He just heard them beeping their groceries away, continuing to keep their heads down.
He turned back to the accusatory device, his frozen pizza forgotten on the scanner. The bit you had to put it through was red, of course, a deep, dark colour like blood spilling across a floor. He’d never noticed it before, but the lamp at the top of the device flashed red in the same shade, angrily requesting the help that didn’t seem to be coming. The same shade, in fact, as the scanning laser that came up and over his body, fizzing and hissing as the shoppers around him kept on staring down…
...there was a beep, and for a second a product flashed up on the screen. But it wasn't one he’d scanned or even wanted, because he'd been trying to be a vegetarian these days.
“Do you wish to continue?” asked the machine in its cheery and cheerless way. It was like all the other statements that checkout voices made; it was clear that there wasn't a person behind it. But for whatever reason, the question was haunting to Grant. Did he wish to continue? There was less enjoyment in his life than before, it was true. If anyone had suggested he’d been feeling down he’d have laughed it off, but he’d been finding things seemed to get harder with each of the months that went by. So much of his life felt like being at this checkout machine did, with everything breaking and no one coming over to help.
He looked again at the glowing screen, at the lines that told him about the meat he hadn’t bought. It was funny, but in a way the creatures who became that meat had done more for the world than he ever had. Providing people with an enjoyable meal, which he barely felt able to do these days! He thought of the screaming at home and the squawking in a battery farm, and for a second he wasn’t sure which one he’d prefer.
“Do you wish to continue?” the voice asked him again. On the screen in front of them, white buttons showed the words YES and NO.
There was a big queue behind him; he didn't want his decision to take long. And it didn't need to, in any case. It wasn't such a difficult choice, once you saw things as they really were…
...the bright red light glared over his face, and he idly wondered what his family would think when he was gone. He raised his hand up high to make his choice–
–before the screen went black, and the red light above him exploded. There was a fizz of sparks from every part of the machine, and for a second his frozen pizza smouldered and caught fire. Around him shoppers continued to check their goods, all totally undisturbed. A long roll of receipt paper spurted out of a slot, printed with endless names. If Grant was as emotionless as the machine, he’d have noticed his own name at the end of the spool, the only one without a cost printed by its side. But he suddenly went into a blind panic, and so he noticed nothing at all.
He turned round as if sober after drunk. A woman wearing store assistant’s clothes grinned up at him, waggling a device that no shop worker would need. She smiled as the sparks kept raining down, as if all this was an everyday part of her job.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “These ones are a bit new. They’re always doing things that none of us in the store expect!”
“But it tried to kill me!” said Grant. “I was going to let it kill me,” he added, more softly.
“Oh, they’ll kill us all, if we’re not careful! Got the whole planet in their sights. But that’s the problem with these machines, isn’t it?” She grinned. “They seem to have a mind of their own.”
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